Terence Kealey has a very interesting article in The Sunday Telegraph. Terence thinks that “Coronavirus is a study in the East’s superior attitude to science”. What does he mean by that?
He points out that “On Jan 27, the authorities in Seoul invited representatives from 20 South Korean biotech companies to develop a Covid-19 test… When the virus struck South Korea, the government’s response was swift because it was easy: it told the biotech companies that any tests they developed would be rushed through the regulation process. So tests were immediately developed; contacts – and only contacts – were isolated, and the eastern countries never had to lockdown”.
The effectiveness of eastern states’ response to Covid19 has been considered by many a result of historical circumstances. Basically, these governments had to face SARS and MERS and thus were better prepared against the outbreak. Kealey’s point is different: government spending on research crowds private spending out. South Korea is a big spender on R&D, but that most of such expenditure is channeled through the private sector. This fact for Kealey has two consequences:
1) private companies focus naturally on applications of scientific knowledge. For this reason, biotech companies could be fast mobilized to produce tests, in a way that university labs cannot.
2) scientists do not become largely public employees, and thus do not lobby governments for bigger grants, independent of the practical needs of society.
This made the science ecosystem more responsive to a challenge such as this. Notice that Kealey is not against mobilizing science, putting it at the service of a public need in the emergency. But he thinks that the fact that research was accomplished by and large within the public sector makes actually such mobilization possible, whereas it is unlikely when it comes to university-centered scientific communities in the West. I suppose Kealey’s critics will ask him to break down South Korean’s private and public spending, searching for reasons to dismiss his argument.