“What happens with technology is under our control”
Paul M. Romer, the 2018 Economic Sciences Laureate, reminds us that technology isn’t like the weather. It doesn’t just happen to us. It is a tool we can use to do good in the world. Listen to the full interview, following the announcement of the 2018 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Media.
Transcript of the interview
Paul Romer: Hello.
Adam Smith: Hello, may I speak with Paul Romer please.
PR: This is Paul.
AS: This is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
AS: Well, first of all many, many congratulations on the award of the Prize in Economic Sciences.
PR: Yes, well, thank you.
AS: You sound nicely calm.
PR: [Laughs] I think it takes a while for the … it takes a while for this to all sink in. So …
AS: I can imagine. I won’t ask whether it’s a surprise because of course a couple of years ago NYU released a press release saying you’d been awarded the prize by mistake.
PR: Well, I wasn’t sure I should mention that, but yeah that’s … unfortunately this is something that universities tend to prepare for, and I’d sort of been through this trail, including this, this release. It’s actually not the first time that happened. There was an email that went out when I was at Stanford … [phone rings] So, anyway, I’ve got some experience with this, but nobody, I think nobody prepared a press release at any university this time, and I was … sound asleep so it caught me off guard.
AS: Well, never mind they can dig out the old ones.
PR: I guess so.
AS: You’ve been awarded the prize for analysing the relationship between innovation and the economy. We all know that innovation drives growth in GDP, but what do you think is the most important thing that your work teaches us?
PR: Well, it teaches us that what happens with technology is under our control. If we collectively set our minds to improving technology of a particular type we can do that, and it takes some collective action, some support for research, or some provision of patent protection, or a mixture of the two, and some focussed energy. It takes even policies like a commitment to open up systems of university education to everyone. But if we set our minds to improving technology, we can improve it in a direction that seems important to us and even at a faster rate. So instead of treating it as something that just happens to us like the weather, we should treat … we can treat it as something that we control.
AS: And is fostering research and development enough or do you need more to make it work?
PR: Well, one of the things I should tell you is that if you look at the very long sweep of history what you see is that the rate of growth has been speeding up, the rate of progress, and that’s because there’s more and more people who are all engaged in this process of discovery. And then once anyone discovers something they can, they can share it. So a very important part of supporting this kind of research is making it possible for as many people as possible to know what we’ve already discovered, to communicate what they’ve discovered and to share this process of learning what we know, and then going out and making new discoveries. So it isn’t just a question of what any one nation does, it’s also a question of how effectively we connect with everybody anywhere in the world and share all the insights that are discovered anywhere. But when I think about, say, a pharmaceutical that might help keep my mind sharp in 20 years or 30 years, I don’t care if it’s discovered in the United States or someplace else in the world. I just care that somebody discovers it and if there are a lot more people all over the world working on things then it’s much more likely that we’ll discover them.
AS: Indeed, and there seems to be a race among nations to become the technological leaders of course, but then one also has to think of nations that are left behind perhaps?
PR: Yes, well but this notion about this possibility of sharing is a very optimistic result for countries that are left behind. They don’t have to reinvent the wheel – they can take advantage of what’s already known. And so the challenge of development is figuring out what are the impediments that prevent that flow of knowledge to those countries, and what can policymakers do to remove those impediments and then take advantage of this very rapid growth that countries get when they start catching up.
AS: Lovely, thank you. Well hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about all this and more when you’re in Stockholm in December to receive your prize.
AS: Thank you so much, and once again congratulations.
AS: Thank you.
PR: Good, thank you.