Bill Gates, the Chairman of Microsoft and co-Chairman of the Bill &Melinda Gates Foundation, wrote an interesting review of a book on wsj.com last Sunday. The author of the book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Mr. Matt Ridley, a science writer, makes an argument that trade alone is the most important element in our survival and reproduction thus fueling evolution. Gates does not agree. He claims science must also play an important role. One reason for this is most probably that trade has been everywhere on Earth but science evolved in Europe.
I was not aware of this debate but I had picked up vibes in the Financial Times that economists like to think that prosperity is the only thing that is important for stabilizing a society. This seems to be the general idea in Asia and Russia where freedom is on the back burner. There was a program on the Swedish radio yesterday where a couple of scientists with knowledge about the growth of science in China claimed that the Chinese are aware of the importance of science but, seemingly contradictory, maintains the planning structure on science although they operate with a market economy. Furthermore, however, they apparently experiment with various types of settings for how research group should work. In other words they are not looking for copying the way science performed in the West but instead want to find their own Holy Graal. To be honest there are differences between science performance in the US and Europe as well.
Returning to the title of Mr Ridley's book prosperity has already evolved in the West and it might therefore be important to ask whether or not trade will be less important and science more important in the future? The problem with this idea is that science is probably saturated more or less and is not really possible to increase very much. We have already engaged all people that are available. So unless China develops a new way of conducting science that we should copy we just have to keep going.
Gates also brings up a moral question about what we can do for Africa, since he is investing in aid there. He claims that Mr. Ridley is wrong in assuming that aid is not what Africa needs but growth. Because the West have paid back from the age of colonization with knowledge in health related issues that will have long term positive effects on Africa by lowering the birth rates. I don't know how important this issue is in the competition for raw materials in Africa between China and the West. The Chinese approach is apparently less investing. Hopefully it is not a zero-sum affair. Trade is definitely important in Africa but perhaps science should be built at the same time? Brazil is apparently doing well in agricultural science which focus on the specific climate in question.