From the ARCADE Issue 35.3 feature,"Rethinking Efficiency." Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

The core meaning of the word “efficiency” has nothing to do with speed, cost cutting, profit, mechanized production, or capitalist logic in general. It simply means competency to produce a good outcome. Someone who works efficiently has ample experience, doesn’t make rookie mistakes, and knows how to sequence tasks when making or doing something. Efficiency is a “late-stage” concept that comes after exploration—after most of the discoveries, and mistakes, have been made. It is a refinement, not something that happens at the beginning. Human beings learn by making mistakes. Learning what works is largely a process of eliminating what doesn’t, and the result is greater “efficiency.”

Anyone who has followed the development of the sciences for the last 30 or 40 years knows that the pace of fundamental discovery has slowed remarkably. No new major theories have appeared in cosmology, physics, biology, geology, or chemistry since the mid-1970s. Sometimes the reason given for this is that we have “come to the end of science”—we have found out, in general, how the world works and therefore should not expect new theories, since the ones we have are already right. The actual reason for science’s slowdown is quite different and somewhat alarming.

The lack of new fundamental discoveries in the sciences is largely a product of economic considerations. The period from 1945 to 1975, known in France as the “30 glorious years,” was a time of abundant, worldwide economic growth that led to increased productivity, more jobs, more tax revenue, and more flexibility within governments to spend economic surpluses (yes, surpluses) on fundamental scientific research. After 1975 economic growth began to slow, leading to belt tightening, cost cutting, and the notion that “wasteful governments” stood in the way of the efficiencies of private enterprise—that small firms, venture capital, and R & D by private enterprise would rekindle the growth rates of the prior decades. Governments, the great providers of invention and discovery throughout the midcentury, now were cast as their villainous opponents.

The shift to favoring private enterprise as an engine for innovation and discovery brought about a fundamental (and fundamentally disastrous) change in science. Once private capitalist firms were charged with producing new things, the things they chose to produce were not really new but took the results of basic and applied research of the previous years—funded by governments and universities—and tried to make them profitable through refinements and modifications. This is because profitability and scientific discovery are, generally speaking, incompatible. The reason why we have universities and “nonprofit” organizations is because the initial stages in the development of any idea are inefficient, risky, and carry a high probability of failure, somewhat above 60%. Novel ideas are costly. As Ben Franklin pointed out, like newborns, they require intensive care and resources, and a period of conceptual infancy is always a precondition to mature success.

People who exalt private enterprise as a sort of panacea talk about efficiency as a synonym for getting rid of waste, or streamlining, or rationalizing. But in order to make something efficient, you have to have something rough to work on: something new, potentially valuable, not yet on its way to profitability. Trying to make the processes of discovery and invention efficient is a contradiction in terms because discovery and invention are by their very nature inefficient. Discovery is a stage in human enterprise when inefficiency reaches a maximum value, because at this point you’re doing something that no one has ever done before.

This does not mean exalting inefficiency. Inefficiency is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for invention. However, if you want something really new, you have to be patient. Later on, considerations of efficiency, profitability, and productivity can enter in, but never, never at the beginning.