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Sunny with a chance of traffic: Government intervention and its effects on knowledge accumulation in science and industry


It is frequently asserted that government intervention around science and R&D disrupts the efficient search for knowledge. The main argument in this dissertation is that while governments do have considerable power to influence what topics scientists choose to work on, government intervention does not slow the accumulation of knowledge, and in some cases accelerates it. Two historical case studies illustrate this point, one around weather forecasting and the other around in-vehicle road navigation, both set in the mid-20th century in the United States. Because the federal government was a consistent sponsor of weather forecasting research, while also withdrawing its support from in-vehicle road navigation technology by the early 1970s, the two cases provide analytical leverage to draw out the specific mechanisms that linked government action to the accumulation of knowledge in science and industry.

Historically speaking, the differences in how government engaged with the two domains meant that weather forecasting research continued to flourish despite low accuracy, while in-vehicle road navigation technology was delayed for nearly thirty years until GPS re-energized the space in the mid-1990s. Government decision-making was crucial in establishing these long-term trajectories. But nonetheless, factors around the diffusion process outstripped the government’s ability to impact scientists’ choice of research topics with each new intervention. Even in situations where the government made bad investments into technology, scientists quickly redirected their efforts toward more fruitful applications. Science continued to efficiently search for knowledge in the presence of government intervention.

The distortionary impacts of government intervention are thus overstated in the literature, not to mention in public discourse. Over and above this, though, by providing key technology to scientists, government intervention unlocked new possibilities for research. With weather forecasting and in-vehicle road navigation, the government shaped the accumulation of knowledge less by making science inefficient and more by overcoming the obstacles blocking the way for certain lines of research.

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