What drives the economy? It’s the technology, stupid. And what drives the technology? Science.
In 1750, fourteen-year-old James Watt was given a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s Elements of Natural Philosophy, which he read over and over. He began making his own experiments. A few years later, he became a professional instrument maker. He realized that Thomas Newcomen’s steam engine, a contraption for removing water from mines, could be made more efficient and then used to run machinery. Contemporary factories ran on water power and were therefore subject to the vicissitudes of the English weather but Watt realized that an improved steam engine would solve this problem. By the end of 1781, he had developed a rotative engine, able to run a multitude of different machines and to create many, diverse kinds of objects. This innovation gave birth to the Industrial Revolution, through which the modern world was made possible. Great manufacturing cities soon arose in Britain, Europe, America, and, eventually, throughout the world. When we hear about the need for more manufacturing jobs, it’s worth remembering that such employment has always been dependent upon advances in science and upon the ingenuity of the creative individuals who have been inspired to take up intellectual challenges. Capital is needed to bring these ideas to fruition but without the underlying scientific progress capital can do nothing. In fact, capital itself is largely a product of ancient advances in metallurgy and the more recent invention of printing.
By 1825, the possibilities of the steam engine had been developed to such a point that George Stephenson was able to open the first public steam-powered railway in northeastern England. During the ensuing “railway mania” of the 1840s, thousands of miles of track were built. Other countries soon followed the British example. Rail travel enabled people, raw materials and finished goods to be moved quickly from place to place, greatly enhancing commerce. The taming of steam also gave rise to steamboats and, eventually, steamships. The steam trains soon had competition from new electric trains, developed in Germany, Britain and the USA. The London Underground began running them in 1890. Other inventions contributing to the transportation revolution included the bicycle, the automobile and the airplane. These technological advances not only provided jobs directly but also boosted the efficiency of other economic activity by allowing the free flow of skilled and unskilled labor.
The electric motor, invented by Michael Faraday in 1821, eventually led to the invention of fridges, washers, vacuum cleaners and many other items. Ten years later, Faraday invented the electric generator. A Scotsman, James Clerk Maxwell, showed that electricity and magnetism were different manifestations of a single electromagnetic force; his equations made its behavior predictable and therefore controllable. Inventions that depend upon Maxwell’s equations include radio, television and the Internet. Electric lighting enabled economic activity to go on in a wider variety of locations and at all hours of the day. The study of light was a key factor in the development of quantum physics, whose insights led to a surprisingly large number of products being developed, including the computer chips, laptops, smartphones, lasers, GPS devices and MRI machines. The business world of today could not function without computers, the Internet and modern communication devices. Nor could our great construction projects be carried out without contemporary knowledge of physics, chemistry and materials science.
The life sciences are also tremendous job creators. Medicine has given rise to the enormous healthcare industry, forecast to soon comprise one fifth of the US economy. Developments in botany, zoology and genetics contributed to the agricultural advances that make feeding of such a huge human population, which has increased more than tenfold in the past three hundred years, possible. The disclosure of the chemical structure of the DNA molecule by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953 opened up a literally limitless field of potential research that will lead to incalculable new job opportunities in biology, medicine, agriculture, forensics, security, and so on. Government investment in the Human Genome Project was so successful that it is estimated that each taxpayer dollar spent on the research generated $66 worth of economic activity, an amazing return on investment.
Science continues to create jobs. Today, over 80% of employees utilize computers. Renewable energy is becoming a major employer in the US and around the world, employing over 3.5 million people just in China. According to the US Energy Information Association, the USA’s solar energy industry alone now employs well over twice as many people as its coal industry. Yet there is a justified fear that science might soon outpace iself and begin to eliminate more jobs than it creates, leading to an unacceptable percentage of employment opportunities being taken over by machines. Similar events have occurred before. In 18th Century Britain, the enclosure movement brought advances in agriculture but at the price of the displacement of tens of thousands of farm laborers. Much of this pool of excess labor eventually found work in the factories of the Industrial Revolution, but there is no guarantee that comparable advances will solve future unemployment crises. Can science solve this conundrum of its own creation? There are several possibilities, all of which are likely to play a part:
1) More Innovation. Unforeseeable technological advances could create sufficient new employment opportunities in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
2) More Localization. Science gives us the option of choosing a future that is more localized and more sustainable, one in which emphasis is placed on psychological well being instead of economies of scale. Local communities that provide their own energy, grow their own food, manufacture their own products, and create much of their own entertainment would provide additional job opportunities.
3) Less Work. We could draw on the soft science of economics to reimagine society in a way that enables people to work fewer hours without falling into poverty.
3) Less Population. If all else fails and we do end up with too many people chasing too few jobs, we might simply have to rely on science to provide reproductive technologies that enable us to reduce the population size.