Analogizing the commoditization of research to the agricultural revolution

The thing that defined both the invention of agriculture and the industrial revolution is the mass-manufacture of a process that had previously been done by hand, resulting in larger quantities of often lower-quality goods. Through this lens, it would be just as appropriate to call research’s commoditization process during the 20th century (as described in The decline of unfettered research) a ‘scientific revolution’ as the scientific revolution of the 16th century.

The advent of agriculture coincided with larger populations but worse nutrition and health for most individuals (regardless of how you feel about paleo, eating just bread and cheese is probably less good than eating a bunch of plants and animals.) The advent of mechanized industry led to much more plentiful and affordable goods but their quality didn’t compare to most hand-crafted goods (which still have a connotation of quality if only because they can be customized to the individual.) These revolutions both involved a tradeoff of quality for quantity.

However, over time we figured out how to increase quality while maintaining the increased quantity. Agriculture has eventually brought us to a place where we can eat a greater variety of high-quality food than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Manufacturing processes eventually got to a point where many machine-made goods both cheaper and higher quality than hand made goods. No offense meant to anybody but hand-made socks are good only for sentimental value.

The purpose of this analogy is the hope that like agriculture and manufacturing, research can get past the “valley of suck” and to encourage us to think about how that can happen. Perhaps there are useful lessons embedded in the histories of both agriculture and manufacturing.

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