31 May 2015

Science and the Unconditional Basic Income

When I'm not writing my blog, my day-job is as the Director of the Brain and Cognition Research Center (CerCo) in Toulouse, France. It's a lab with about 85 people, many of whom are keen young scientists working for a Masters, a PhD thesis or as a postdoc. Many of them are highly motivated, very dedicated to science, and hoping that at some point, they may able to make a living from doing science.

The problem is that, tragically, there are simply not enough jobs to go round. Many will be forced to give up science at some point.

I was recently in Florida for the Annual meeting of the Visual Sciences Society. There were roughly 1800 scientists there. Again, the vast majority were young and enthusiastic scientists. Again, it was clear that only a fraction were going to make it in research and end up with one of the rare academic positions.  Indeed, I was one of the panel in a discussion group organised for young doctoral and postdoc scientists, where the idea was to try and give some tips about how to get funding. Together with the other members of the panel, I did my best to not sound too depressing - knowing full well that many of the young enthusiatic faces in front of us were going to be forced to give up science at some point.

That got me thinking. And I realised that here was a perfect illustration of why we really need an Unconditional Basic Income. The fact is that science is, or at least should be, great fun! Many very talented people would happily do the science for free - if only they could simply have enough money to feed and clothe themselves and be able to afford to pay for somewhere to live.

So, just imagine what would happen if, instead of fighting each other to be one of the tiny fraction of keen young scientists that manage to get a job, people were all given an Unconditional Basic Income of a few hundred euros (or pounds or dollars) a month. That would mean that young scientists would be in a position to devote a considerable time each week to doing what they enjoy - in this case science. If they wanted to have more revenue to cover for extras, like travel, restaurants, concerts etc, they could take on some additional work doing things like working in bars and restaurants, correcting exam papers, or any number of a range of gruelling jobs - in other words, the sort of things that people would not do spontaneously.

Even teaching students can be enjoyable and rewarding, and it is quite possible that quite a few young scientists (and even older ones!) would be happy to do some teaching spontaneously. In my case, I do around 20 hours of teaching at the Masters level every year with no payment - simply because I think it is important. It's also a great way to get good students.

So, imagine that - a world where everyone is guaranteed an Unconditional Basic Income that was sufficent for a basic living. It would free people up to spend time on things that they want to do without having to be paid for that work. Huge amounts of human activity which currently can only be done if the government can the money to pay for it would get done for free. Currently, those jobs can only be done by raising enough money in tax to pay people to do the work. What a stupid waste of resources!

Scientific research is just one of the areas that could be done without tax based funding, but it's a particularly clear illustration. Imagine the social progress and technological advances that would be possible if we could only free people to do the things that they love doing.

To be clear, science would advance vastly more quickly if the armies of doctoral students and postdocs who are currently scrabbling around trying to get the few paid jobs were given the chance to be able to do what they would want do anyway. There's a particuarly obvious example in the case of computing, where a substantial proportion of the software that is currently in use has been written and developed by dedicated open-source developers - in their free time, and with no financial motivation. It's a system that has been proved to work already.

But science and technology isn't the end of the story. Music, Dance, Theatre and Literature would also all be massively enhanced if we could just free people from the chore of having to try and pay the bills by fighting to get one of a diminishing number of paid jobs.

In the end, I believe that paid work should be restricted to just those tasks that no-one would want to do spontaneously. I doubt that anyone would spontaneously like to spend 8 hours a day cleaning out sewers, collecting garbage, constructing roads and buildings, or doing dangerous jobs like fighting organised crime and terrorism. In the sort of society built around an Unconditional Basic Income, those jobs would suddenly become very highly paid. And you could also find that people would be able to chose to do them just part time - a few days a week, or a few weeks every year. Rather than spending 40 hours a week, 46 weeks a year doing a poorly paid job and having to wait to be retired to start doing the things we really want to do, we could all spend most of our time doing what we want to do, and just doing a few weeks a year of some unpleasant, but vital and hence highly paid work.

It may sound hopelessly utopic to imagine that everyone could essentially do what they enjoy doing most, and that the few necessary jobs that don't get done spontaneously would be paid very well. But, actually, I think it could happen.  And I can't help thinking that this is really the world I would like my descendants to live in.

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