Academic Self-Sufficiency

As you might know, I’m a devoted listener of the EconTalk podcast. Since one a week isn’t nearly enough to fill all the walking that I do, I have also been listening through five years of archived episodes. While they are consistently high quality, this episode blew me away.

In short (very short– it’s packed to the brim with good stuff) Russ Roberts breaks down why trade is awesome because it allows us to both leverage the fact that we are good at different things (a Ricardian perspective) and that there are a lot of us (a Smithian perspective.)

The podcast touches on many things I think about a lot – technology, how to use your abilities best, entrepreneurship, how humanity pulls itself up by its bootstraps, and more.

I was especially struck by the quote: ‘self-sufficiency is the road to poverty.’ I feel like this is an unsolved problem in academia. In this case ‘trade’ is less movement of physical goods or services, but in experience. I can’t count the time that I feel like I’m reinventing the wheel when putting together some part of an experiment. Surely there is someone who has gone through a very similar process, probably right here at Cornell, yet I have no good way of finding them and benefiting from what they’ve already done.

The ability of trade to make everything better for everyone feels very stunted in academia. I think that the academic world meets both of the conditions set forth for beneficial trade – extreme specialization and, with the bloated size of universities, large numbers of participants.

Somehow, though, there isn’t as much intellectual trade as one would hope.

One problem is the huge amount of friction in sharing your work in science. The only officially recognized ‘market’ is publications of peer-reviewed papers, which despite PDF’s and online databases, is still mostly mired in the 19th century. There isn’t enough space in a paper to actually describe the technical nitty-gritty and the format doesn’t lend itself to the reader gaining from the writer’s experience.

The pace of research progress would explode if these sorts of friction were decreased. A first step would be decreasing the amount of time spent communicating via papers (though I do agree that some kind of review process needs to remain.) Beyond that, I’m thinking about other tools that would allow researchers to free themselves of the poverty-shackles of self-sufficiency.

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One thought on “Academic Self-Sufficiency

  1. Pingback: InterSpecialization Specializing | The Tinfoil Hat

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