Robert Bryce : 0:05
Hi, thanks for being with us. I’m Robert Bryce’s is the power hungry podcast where we talk about energy, innovation, politics, and of course power, which and power in the broad meaning of power, electric power, energy and also political power. So I’m very pleased to have as my guest today, Matt Ridley, we’ve been acquainted for some time. Matt has written many books, I think is this number nine, Matt. It’s number nine if you’ve got proper books, but the old sort of compendium of articles along the along the way as sure of course, so I could introduce you and bring you know, talk about a lot of things that you’ve done. I could call you this count, I could call you. Why don’t you introduce yourself as someone who you’ve not met and say, you know, I’m Matt Ridley, I’m something don’t go ahead. Introduce yourself. You don’t mind. Good, good. Good challenge. I’m out
Matt Ridley : 1:00
Really, I write books that are nonfiction books, they usually have a science content. But increasingly, I also write about economics. And in particular, the last three books been about innovation in one form or another. And I have a science background, I also have a career in journalism. I’ve done other things as well. And I currently sit in the House of Lords in the UK Parliament, where I sit on the science and technology Select Committee. And today, we’re here to talk about your ninth book, which is how innovation works, and why it flourishes in freedom.
Robert Bryce : 1:35
So you mentioned science, if you don’t mind, I’ll just follow up on that. So you’ve written a lot about science, and I do a little bit as well and write a little bit about the energy business myself. One of the things that I’ve noticed and you must have as well is the level of scientific illiteracy among the general public and in numeracy and it’s made a career for you of course, being able to discuss these things, but is that your perception as well? Well, that the the public is scientific, generally speaking, scientifically illiterate and want to learn it or what? Tell me how you see that?
Matt Ridley : 2:08
Yeah, well, on one level, I think people are very reasonable, very keen to understand what they don’t understand. And it’s not reasonable to expect them to understand advanced molecular biology and genomics because it’s a fast moving field of enormous complexity and depth and, and how could they keep up with it? So when I mean, I remember, you know, I wrote a book about genomics 20 years ago, when it was when the human genome was being sequenced and somebody saying, Look, that’s all very well, but I’m too old to learn this stuff. I don’t understand it. I said, No, you’re exactly wrong. Because none of this almost nothing in my book was known. 10 years ago, let alone 20. So it’s new for all of us. It’s new for young people. It’s new for old people. It’s, you’ve got no disadvantage in in trying to catch up with it. I think that’s quite important, but where i, where i do agree with you there is a huge problem. And that is the ability to cope with statistics and probabilistic arguments about risk. And there, it seems to be very easy to tap into people’s folk psychology, which doesn’t help them with real psychology. So you can scare them about a tiny risk. Or you can reassure them about a big risk depending on how you persuade how you present it. And that seems to be to be a huge issue that we can’t we don’t seem to be able to solve. We’re not getting better at
Robert Bryce : 3:38
Well, it’s interesting you bring that up because I mean, this idea of risk and and we’re going to get to talk about your book, but I but I you also talk in the book about vaccines and inoculations and that’s very much relevant now to the issue of the Coronavirus and COVID-19 which, and you’ve written some in your column about this probability and the risk issues of the past And what whether the lockdowns were. Now in retrospect, of course everything is in hindsight is 2020. But was the risk of the virus overstated early on, do you think?
Matt Ridley : 4:12
I think the risk of the virus was misstated. I don’t think it was overstated. I fairly early on I was going around saying, this is a wolf. You know, we’ve been crying wolf over pandemic diseases for 20 years, swine flu, bird flu, Ebola, whatever. And the wolf never arrives. This time it is a wolf, because of this strange combination of being very easily transmitted even by asymptomatic people, and yet capable of killing people, particularly elderly people. So most diseases are either very harmless and very easy to pick up like common colds or very dangerous and very difficult to catch like Ebola or something like that, you know, so you know, it’s easy to stamp them out. This this the combination of the two Was I think particularly difficult in this case. But we misread this epidemic quite badly. I think we, we felt we didn’t spot that it was capable of spreading very rapidly and very dangerously in hospitals and care homes and being spread by healthcare workers. And we didn’t do nearly enough to stop that process. In fact, we made it worse by sending people home from hospital to make room for all the people who are going to come in from the community with infections acquired in the community. And not that many people turned up with those infections. And so the the the wards remained empty, while the people who’ve been kicked out of their beds had gone back to care homes and gave it to others. So I think there was quite a bad misreading of what was going on. We didn’t understand the degree to which it was turning into a nosocomial epidemic, that is to say something spread within the healthcare system. In terms of lethality, that is where it is, you know, it’s sure very harmless for me.
Robert Bryce : 6:00
Before the 42% of the deaths in the US 43% have been in nursing homes care homes. Correct. In your in your book, you talk about the efforts on whooping cough in Michigan, Pearl, Kendrick and grace. Elderly, which is a story I’d never heard of before. You also
Matt Ridley : 6:16
I have not until I came across it when I was researching the book. I think it’s a beautiful story.
Robert Bryce : 6:20
It’s amazing story that these two women at a time when women were not in the healthcare field to the extent that they are today, and that they pioneered this, the treatment for whooping cough and didn’t really get recognized made essentially no money from it. And you also talk about the smallpox, cholera, typhoid, etc. But if you don’t mind just run through that whooping cough story because it is remarkable one.
Matt Ridley : 6:49
Yeah, no, I think it’s a beautiful story. And it’s basically four years beginning to end from them starting on the project to them having a workable vaccine. That’s pretty quick even by today’s standards. They were both bacteriologist, they were both former teachers, but they’d managed to go into science. They were practical bacterial, just, you know, in other words, their job was to analyze samples from the community and, and, you know, do public health work. But in their spare time, they wanted to tackle this whooping cough epidemic, which was, at the time, hugely problematic. It was probably the biggest cause of death among children in the United States at the time, is in 19, the early 1930s. And they moved on from First of all, using developing a technique for for working out how long people were infectious, which was terribly important so that people could come out of quarantine and get back to work because a lot this was the middle of the depression. You know, households were going destitute because they were being quarantined and the breadwinner couldn’t go out to work. And they moved on from that to say, we think we could develop a vaccine to this. It’s a bacterium. We know how to Treat bacteria in such a way that you couldn’t make them into a vaccine that safe but also protective. Other people had tried and not succeeded. They were just really careful, really meticulous. There was nothing particularly brilliant about what they did. They just did it really, really step by step and carefully, they came up with a vaccine, they tested it, they had to find, obviously, people who didn’t take the vaccine, and check that they did catch whooping cough when exposed to it. And that, of course, is the problem. How do you do that? And the traditional way at the time was to go and get kids from orphanages and say, well, we’re not going to give you the vaccine because you’re orphans. But we’re going to expose you to the to the virus, sorry, the bacterium and and see if you catch it, well, they didn’t want to do that. But but they very cleverly found a retrospectively found a community of kids that matched the ones that they’d vaccinated in every way except that they hadn’t been vaccinated and showed that these kids Getting whooping cough at a much higher rate than the one vaccinated
Robert Bryce : 9:03
10 x if I recall, right, yeah,
Matt Ridley : 9:05
it was 10 times as much. Exactly. And so they then presented this this data and the authorities said, That can’t be right, too good to be true. You’re, we’ll have to look at your data. And particularly one researcher from Johns Hopkins, sort of came and went through their data expecting to find all sorts of flaws in it and say, Look, sorry, this doesn’t prove anything. But he kept scratching his head and saying, Well, no, actually, you’ve done you’ve done this, right. I can’t actually see the problem. Let’s do another trial, and see if it still works. And they did another trial, and it worked. And at this point, one of them wrote to the First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and said, Any chance you could visit and see what we’re doing? We’re saving lives with whooping cough vaccine, and she visited and came and went back and said these people need support spend spent
Robert Bryce : 9:57
all day with them as she spent
Matt Ridley : 9:59
it. Now is with them. Yeah, exactly. It was a remarkable story.
Robert Bryce : 10:03
Matt Ridley : 10:04
by the end, of course, they’ve produced a vaccine. It’s being rolled out across the country. It’s working it’s cure. It’s preventing whooping cough on a massive scale it goes across the world. But by now World War One World War Two is broken out. And and there’s, you know, it’s hard to get news coverage for this kind of thing. And neither of them want to push themselves forward in press terms, neither of them want to make a hero out of it, neither of them want to make money out of it, actually. So it really is it’s almost the purest example of a of an innovation that saves lives on a massive scale is done right you know, they didn’t put a foot wrong that I could come up with.
Robert Bryce : 10:39
And in today’s society where everyone is seems to be saying look at me and give me money and I mean now coins that they don’t seek remuneration for it, and that really are for almost forgotten to history.
Matt Ridley : 10:52
today. They almost certainly stumble upon intellectual property, barriers to patents or other defenses that That would mean that would require a lot of expense to get around, negotiate with drug companies and things like that. That wasn’t so prevalent in those days. Sure.
Robert Bryce : 11:09
Well, I want to come back to the patent idea and your your line about, about the issue of of, of patents and potentially slowing and say in fact, you say intellectual property is now a hindrance, not a help to modern innovation. But let me go back if you don’t mind and, and and talk about one of your first lines in the book where you talk about innovation, you say, innovation means finding new ways to apply energy to create improbable things and see them catch on. You know, I write about energy and power and so I really was captivated by your history of new common and what and, and, but it really was turning heat into work to use your line. That was the critical innovation that changed from all of pre history through almost all of the of the last 2000 years but it was that ability to turn heat into work that fundamentally changed humankind and new common set it started but then what was was it just briefly because the watchman reached out alive and you also say that he was a brilliant inventor though he undoubtedly was, gets too much credit. So why does he get too much credit?
Matt Ridley : 12:22
James watts you mean what? Yeah, well, in the sense he’s, he’s just improving the, the steam engine he does the separate condenser which makes the steam engine much more efficient, reduces the amount of wastage of energy. But and he’s also quite a canny operator. He goes into partners with math with Matthew Bolton to set it you know, to drive this into business and, and it starts to catch on as a machine for running factories and things like that, that the steam engine does. But he doesn’t invent the steam engine that is new commoner two generations earlier. And he doesn’t turn it into a source of motion, like the locomotive that is Stevenson, a generation after him. So in a sense, what I didn’t know because of that his name got attached to a unit of energy of something, I think looms a little too large in the story. So he’s very important, but he’s not perhaps as important as the others. And I’d love to get your reaction actually, to this point about heating work. Because I’ve gone around the last few years saying that that the key to the Industrial Revolution, what it represents, is the moment when we link the world of heat in the world of work for the first time. Before that, we have lots of energy and energy and you know, as you say, I have a sort of thermodynamic view of what civilization is it’s, it’s the creation of improbable order by the inputting of energy. And we had energy coming from wheat and we had energy coming from water and we had energy coming from Wood and wind and all these things but they either went into work, they made things move machines or people or horses or whatever it was that moved. Or they went into just warming up a building journey making people less cold like coal and on would did so. But there’s no connection between the two with with one or two sort of potential little exceptions like you could argue that a cannon is turning heat into work. It’s certainly making a projectile move but it’s really the expansion it’s the change in pressure, not the change in temperature. That’s that’s really making the work there. then along comes newcomers and for the first time and by the way, then it’s pop out and suddenly forgotten his name the other English guy, Captain savory. Both plays some role we can’t work out what in in pre preparing the world If a new command to do is breakthrough, but new commands a humble engineer from Cornwall, and he really does make an enormous difference from Devin, I should say. And because what they’re doing now, these early steam engines is taking a fire a furnace, and making that turn something in the first implicate the first application is purely for pumping water out of mines, where you’ve got a cheap supply of coal. So it’s it’s useful to do it and you can take on the horse as it were, as they become competitive with it. But do you think I’m right, that that that transition, the heat to work transition is a key part of the industrial revolution?
Robert Bryce : 15:40
Oh, well, there’s just no doubt about it. And in fact, you know, I’ve thought about this just in the last few days. And the new BP statistical review just came out. And still today after we’ve heard about, you know, I, I’m we’re about the same age, right, and I’ve heard about solar and wind and they’re going to suddenly take over the world. 8485 percent of all global primary energy still comes from coal, oil and natural gas. So there’s another
Matt Ridley : 16:05
5% comes from heat in the photo nuclear, right?
Robert Bryce : 16:09
So the idea that we’re somehow going to move beyond combustion, because that’s the mantra, right? We’re not going to need combustion, and we won’t need vision. In fact, we can harness everything we need. This is the mantra of the Democratic Party in the US. I’m not saying this is a partisan, this has been their platform. But this is also the the the the dogma of the environmental left and the some of the most of the loudest climate activists is we can’t use hydrocarbons anymore. But you say this great. I mean, you boil it down, boil it down, get that combustion causes pressure, combustion causes pressure, which causes movement, virtually all the gigantic amounts of energy that go into making my life and yours happen comes from the conversion of heat to work. And I think that’s just it, exactly. And the the scale of that can that can be Question is so enormous that again, going back to our earlier discussion about people’s ability to comprehend the scale of this, these energy and power systems that we have, I think, is it. That’s the difficult part, I think. And what I see is just getting people to understand that
Matt Ridley : 17:15
it’s out of sight, out of mind. And the other factor that I think is so important, and it’s very hard to get people to talk about is the energy return on energy invested. So I give the example I think it’s in the book where I talk about an abbey in medieval Abbey in England, which grew barley every year, and in a good year, it could grow Five Grains of barley for every grain that was sown, and in a bad year three, and in an average year for right now, think about that average year four, you’ve got three grains of barley, you’ve got to keep one for next year’s crop. So you’ve got three surplus grains of barley per per one. you’ve sown, that’s got to feed your horses as well as yourself. It’s got to make your beer and all that, but it’s also got to pay for, because that’s where the energy is coming from the labor of building the castle or the church or whatever it is that you’re building for your overlords that that that it’s a very thin margin of, of excess energy. And if you look at today’s renewable energies, their energy return on energy invested is equally thin. I mean, you’ve got to put a huge amount of energy into making a wind turbine and wiring it up and finishing the system and so on. And then it starts to pay you back and after about 10 years, it’s paid back the cost of making the wind turbine, which is no good to man no BS. All you’ve done is paid for the machine that made the energy so you’re still underwater as it were. For the next 10 years, maybe you can actually make some net energy which can help the world. But compare that with a gas. Well, you’re talking something like 600 times as much energy coming out and coming out within not minutes, but within, you know, weeks of you for bringing the well online.
Robert Bryce : 19:17
Sure. And that’s that you use that one line with autocatalytic, which I’ve not seen before, which that idea and I mean, to build on your idea on the gas wells. There’s what’s happening in the Permian Basin in Texas now, in other places, in some cases, they’re taking gas that they’re producing and running their engines off of that to drill more wells. So this idea that it’s the wells are, are they aren’t drilling themselves, but they’re fueling their own reproduction? I guess, one way to think about it,
Matt Ridley : 19:53
and that’s what starts to happen in the coal fields of England in the early 1700s. Is that the coal is is running The steam engines which are pumping out the water, which makes the coal mines more productive, and so on. And so you’re getting a virtuous circle. And of course, the excess energy is then used to smelt metal. And the metal is used to make the steam engine and so on. And so you can sort of see how this, this whole thing of repealing the second law of thermodynamics sort of gets going as a sort of as a self reinforcing thing. And you can’t stop it once it started. I rely heavily on that in that part of the book on conversations with a brilliant guy who thinks about this a lot called john Constable, you may have come across Sure, sure, of course. So I want to give him credit for that, because he’s thinking about this all the time. And he’s done some very interesting lectures on this topic.
Robert Bryce : 20:48
Yeah, and and you In fact, I pulled one of the quotes you said, energy transitions are crucial, difficult and slow. And of course, Vaclav smil has made that same point, right. And, you know, this idea we’re ending the age of course, No, we’re not. We’re still latest data 36% of global electricity produced from coal. This is the same fuel Edison used on Pearl Street. But then you quote Constable, you said for the vast majority of history, argues john Constable, the supply of energy from wheat and wind and water was just too thin to generate complex structures. And that’s about your idea about this energy return on energy invested, you have to make a big return, especially if you’re relying on photosynthesis, because you might have too much rain, you might have too little rain, you might have, you know, all of these other things that can enter it can interfere with your ability to have the energy you need to build society. And that’s one of the things that I think is so good, but that idea of autocatalytic right, the idea that the coal is mining itself, I think, is a really powerful one. And the way I put it is you don’t build solar panels with solar panels. You just don’t write you don’t build wind turbines with wind turbines. So and but then Let’s talk about that because you said, I like this idea of auto catalytic, but the auto catalytic, in other words, the steam engine, improving the steam engine didn’t really happen in it at scale until after James watts patents ran out. Why was that so important? Because, again, this idea you make throughout the book is that it’s not just one improvement. It’s these incremental improvements that are that are created in ecosystems. So why was that? That his watts intellectual property a stumbling block to those improvements?
Matt Ridley : 22:33
Well, I should say in that case, the George Elgon, who’s a brilliant economic historian has has said to me, you’re wrong, actually, that we’ve debunked the theory that watts patents got in the way of subsequent investors. I need to go back and look at what the the arguments and counter arguments so there is, but I think there’s no doubt that if you look at history overall including some recent cases like 3d printing, or some very boring cases like corrugated iron I talked about in the book, the expiry of a patent of a key patent leads to a burst of innovation. And that suggests that the patent is not helping. The patent is there to encourage innovation. But actually, in many ways, it’s discouraging it because what it’s doing is it’s allowing the original inventor to, to tap a stream of effectively monopoly income for rent, without lowering his prices and so on, because he’s got a monopoly. And other people can’t find a way around it in industries where they can find a way around it like software patents are valueless. But where but they do and the evidence suggests the empirical evidence from around the world suggests that strong patterns don’t encourage innovation, and in many ways, they discourage it. Countries that strengthen their patent systems don’t see an uptick in innovation. Countries that weaken them don’t see a downtick Innovation. That’s, that tells me that conservatives are wrong to be in love with intellectual property. And the reason they’re in love with it is because they hear the word property and think that this is exactly like physical property. But it’s not because the whole point of a patent is you still want to share the technology. It’s only any good to you if you share it. That is not true of your God as it were, your house?
Robert Bryce : 24:28
Sure, well, and you make the point to about so many of the innovators that we look back to like the Wright brothers and the time that they spent defending their patents may have prevented them from improving their own designs yet further, because they were so involved in litigation, which was an interesting point that I hadn’t thought about before that that need to defend would that that property rights actually hindered them from potentially from going further and making their airplanes are there other things inventions work better and better able to compete in the market.
Matt Ridley : 25:03
Right? I was very struck by those late 19th century, early 20th century innovators who, who spent a ridiculous amount of time defending
Robert Bryce : 25:13
Matt Ridley : 25:14
Samuel Morse is another example. Now Kony is another example. You know, these guys wasted years of their life in court fighting off some rival whose claim might have been Spears, but in not necessarily, actually some of these rivals, were did have a good cause to say, look, I invented some of this too, you know, why are you getting all the credit, etc. And you can’t help thinking that if these guys had said, Fine, let everyone compete. I’m just smarter than you guys. I’ve been at this longer I know how to do it. I’m going to produce a better product than you. And that’s how people operate in the Silicon Valley, digital industry to this day that on the whole, you don’t sit back and hope to defend yourself. patents, you just press ahead and try and produce a new product. That’s even better than the next one. And you see people copying you and you say, Well, why the well,
Robert Bryce : 26:11
they litigate later. Right? I mean, that’s what that’s been what’s I mean, iPhone did that. I think what’s their Apple did that with Cisco after they rolled out the iPhone? They said, well, you may own that name, but we got to hope, you know, how long do you want to fight over this? Right? And yeah, yeah, forward with it. Well, then that one of the other things, you you, you have a chapter on Edison, who’s become almost a mythic figure, but was also an inventor and innovator who spent a lot of time defending his own patents. But you said you wrote about the light bulb, and you don’t put him on a pest pedestal and a lot of biographers do. But you said the light bulb was bound to appear when it did given the progress of other technologies. So this is a theme throughout your book about well, there are ecosystems that are set up and that a lot of people are coming up with bright ideas at the same time. So does I’m
Matt Ridley : 27:05
fascinated by that process. It was Kevin Kelley and his book what technology wants who really alerted the time,
Robert Bryce : 27:13
right? That was the
Matt Ridley : 27:14
Yes, he talks about the technium. There’s sort of this sort of impersonal thing that has to advance and it simply finds an inventor to do the advancing of it. And, but it wasn’t just him way back to the 1920s people were documenting this phenomenon of simultaneous invention, whereby, you know, five different people came up with the with the first thermometer around the same time, etc, etc. and the light bulb is the best example 21 people come up with working light bulbs in the 1870s roughly or around that time anyway, independently of each other. And this seems ridiculous. It’s almost makes it seem like there’s a mystic process that you know, the day it has sent down the idea of a light bulb and the scattered across the face of the planet. But of course, that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that the technology of glass, the technology of vacuums, the technology of electricity, the technology of lighting, have come together in such a way that it’s sort of inevitable that people will come up with this. And what singles Edison out is that he is not just an inventor, in fact, in some ways, he’s not the inventor of the light bulb. He’s an innovator, he actually says, I’m now going to do the really hard work of making a light bulb, reliable, affordable, and available to everybody. And that is hard work. And his famous quote was, invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. And so he tries five or 6000 different plants, before he settles on Japanese bamboo to make the filament of a light bulb. Now that someone who gets it he gets that actually, innovation isn’t sitting in an ivory tower, having a break. idea. It’s working out how to make that idea. reliable and affordable.
Robert Bryce : 29:05
And then I think that that and available i think that that that was the key, right? You know, yes. How do you make it scale? And that’s the other. I mean, we talked about innumeracy in the vast scale of energy consumption globally. But that, I think that that was the key. And you talk about that same ecosystem of invention. You talk about the automobile, right. And you talk about Karl Benz and the bicycle shop. Interesting that Benz was in the bicycle businesses were the Wright brothers. But that the auto cycle engine, well, by itself didn’t wasn’t going to change the world. But then you get a bicycle maker who thinks about an automobile and he uses the auto cycle engine and then suddenly you create this environment where the automobile comes along and say, Oh, well, we can do that. And then Henry Ford comes along and figures out how to scale it extended the scale. He didn’t invent it all but he came up with the idea well, I can get a manufacturing line. And because I can have electric motors, I don’t have to have everything around on the belt, I can put the arrange the factory in a way that is the most suitable for mass production. And that and I guess you call that in that with the innovation that he had was understanding how he could scale the project the the property, how he could scale the end of invent innovations, to then allow them to become mass mass to the masses.
Matt Ridley : 30:23
And and, you know, Henry Ford until Henry Ford, all the other German and French pioneers of the motorcar thought they were inventing a luxury tie for the rich. Henry Ford says, hang on a minute. I’m going to try and drive down costs here and I’m going to try and make something that that that your ordinary man who has a horse and buggy in, you know, farmer in Michigan who wants to go to town once a week will wander by and he’s relentless a driving down the cost. There’s a story which is probably apocryphal that Henry Ford sent his Employees out all over the country to look to scrap heaps to find dead Model T’s and find out what had gone wrong. You know what was broken in these Model T’s and they came back and they said, well, there’s broken axles broken chassis is broken, you know, whatever, everything was broken. Lots of them, except they never found a broken kingpin. Whatever kingpin is I don’t know enough. So he said, right, let’s make the kingpins to a lower specification. We’re wasting our time we’re making up kingpins we’re wasting too much money on kingpin
Robert Bryce : 31:37
never, never heard that story brings back to mind just one long time ago. My dad was still alive and he was born in 1920. And he remembers the Model T right and we would an old vintage Model T race at Chandler park in my hometown, Tulsa, Oklahoma. But I kind of you know, wrestled him out of the house. Nobody had to go see this and he just loved it because you Oh, I think You know, I remember these cars they were really Yeah. Because 10 Lizzie, the 10 Lizzy manufactured through the 20s. And they were made by the 10s of millions. Well, let’s talk about scale because you talked about fusion as well in the book. And this is something that I’m adamantly pro nuclear I’ve, you know, in my my new book, and the last three or four books I’ve written, I said, Well, look, if we’re serious about climate change, we have to be serious about nuclear energy completely right. But the reality is that when you look at the data over the since the 1980s, nuclear has not gained any market share in the overall energy mix globally, and it’s only being deployed now at scale in China, the Russians are exporting their technology rasa. Tom is building reactors all over the world. You wrote that nuclear power is a technology ill suited to the most critical of innovation practices learning by doing because each power station is so big and expensive. It is proved impossible to drive down the cost by experiment. So can it grow then? I mean, that’s the question I you know, there that there’s been some tide, I think turned in terms of Michael Shellenberger other people, nuclear pro nuclear environmentalist climate activist saying we have to make we have to be serious about nuclear. Can we get serious and can it scale?
Matt Ridley : 33:23
Well, I think I’ve, in my own mind, identified that. The problem is, we can’t make new nuclear we can we can make the same nuclear over and over again. But that’s going to get more and more expensive, because we’re always adding safety worries to it and saying, Well, actually, we need to make it so that you can’t have a 911 where an aeroplane runs into it. So we’ve got to make a stronger shell or something. So we’re constantly adding to the cost by demanding more safety from an existing design. If we were able to say instead of that, let’s let’s switch to making an different design that doesn’t depend on water and therefore, you know, his practice needs to be pressurized it uses molten salt instead. And then the salt the fuel is also this, the coolant and, you know, on on paper, these are beautiful designs. And why can’t we switch to trying that, you know, it’s not that, you know, we’re making new cable stations the way we made them in the 1950s. We’re not making computers the way met them in the 1950s. We’ve made whole transitions. And the answer seems to me to be because licensing a new design costs an enormous amount of money and nuclear, and takes an enormously long time. And so when you do that you don’t set out with something that you don’t know is gonna work. You only set out with something that you do know is good.
Robert Bryce : 34:51
Because you can’t iterate you can’t make 1000 things and Model T’s and so yeah, and I take all your points and I you know, I’m hopeful for
Matt Ridley : 35:00
When small modular might be the answer, I mean, if we can start to make these things small, yes, they’re going to be more expensive per unit of power they produce, but at least we’re going to start mass producing them in a factory instead of building them like Egyptian pyramids, one at a time. And that way, we might be able to get the authorities to agree to letters to drive down the cost, by changing the way we make them, that makes them even safer, but even cheaper along the way.
Robert Bryce : 35:29
Well, but that brings back then the question of what the role of government has to be in that industry. And this is one of the things that I think is really difficult, is that you can’t just say to BP or Halliburton or Exxon Oh, just go build a bunch of reactors. I’m sure it’ll be fine. Right. You have to have the government involved because of the waste issues because of the safety because of the public’s public resistance to it. Is that going to be then is that the break I mean? That is going to be And perhaps limit that deployment? Or how do you see you see a potential breakthrough there in saying, Well, look, we’re not using light water, we’re using molten salt or something else. Because it seems to me we’re going to need a regulatory regime change on the mental level. Otherwise, that government role is going to restrain the innovation that you’re talking about,
Matt Ridley : 36:18
you know, it would be absolutely lethal to fusion and indeed, to molten salt reactors. If we simply said, we’re going to take the existing way we regulate pressurized water reactors and map it across, because we’re going to map across an unbelievably complicated, expensive and on the whole prohibitive set of regulations. Instead, what we need to do is say how do we set up regulations that are just as good at achieving safety, but are generally permissive? That is to say they encourage experiment and improvement and to take an analogy here in the Late 1990s, the Clinton administration got Congress to pass a whole bunch of legislation that effectively made e commerce possible. And that legislation was was not designed to make e commerce safe. It was designed to make e commerce possible. And I think that’s the sort of key difference when as to try and think of, it was designed to be permissive, rather than prohibitive. And yes, you can argue that we have all sorts of problems as a result of e commerce. But, you know, the growth of Amazon and everything else is not an accident. It actually does stem from a legislative change. Things like you know, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that that made publishers online into platforms, not, not publishers, not responsible for content and things. Now you can say that’s led to all sorts of problems but, but in all sorts of ways they cleared undergrowth for the industry using regulation. And I think this might be a way of thinking about nuclear, etc is how do we, how do we set up regulations that actually make it easier to do this while not intruding on safety? Because you can argue and Fukushima is the case in point here that the way we’ve regulated nuclear has made it less safe. Hmm. So for example, the Fukushima design was an old reactor past its natural life, it should have been closed down, it wasn’t closed down because the Japanese couldn’t get around to building a new one because it was too expensive to build a new reactor. So they just kept it online. And it had some unbelievably simple and basic design flaws such as having your water pumps in a basement that could get flooded. So it as a result, it exploded. And it didn’t do that much harm when it did. UK power is unbelievably safe. It’s far safer than solar power. It’s far safer than wind power. In terms of how many people it kills, per unit of energy it produces, you know, Chernobyl was the stupidest design of reactor with all sorts of really dangerous features where it could run out of control very easily run by the stupidest regime in history, with no skin in the game, and they still only killed a few hundred people. We never quite know how many, but it was it was not nearly as many as we originally thought it was going to be. So.
Robert Bryce : 39:28
And those are all those are all great points. So if I can boil down what you’ve just said, then if we’re going to have nuclear innovation, we need government innovation on the regulation of nuclear. Well, how possible is that? Truly, I mean, I don’t mean, I don’t mean to be cynical, but I mean, you make this great vignette in the book to about airships. What was that? They are 100. And they are 101. Right.
Matt Ridley : 39:51
That’s a lovely story.
Robert Bryce : 39:52
It isn’t. It’s a remarkable story. But for the people who haven’t read the book, and by the way, the book and my guests Matt Ridley, it’s a His book is how innovation works and why it flourishes and freedom. The year was 1930. I believe that our 100 in the our 101. The our 100 was was built by Vickers, the British.
Matt Ridley : 40:14
This is this is when the theory was that you’d never be able to build a heavier than aeroplane that could cross oceans with significant numbers of passengers. It was just, you know, large planes that could, yeah, sure that the you know, Lindbergh could fly across and Allcock and brown could fly across the Atlantic but but only in small, tiny planes. If you want to just take lots of people or lots of things across the ocean, you’re going to have to build lighter than air devices. That was the theory of the time. And Britain having a far flung Empire. I thought, well, hang on. We ought to get ahead in this. And so the government commissioned Vickers which is a private company to build a sort of airship that could cross the Atlantic. It started work and then the government changed in the UK and the first Labour government came in 1924. And they said, We can’t have this project being a private sector project. We believe in socialism, we believe in the state owning the means of production. So they’ve had it was too late to cancel the Vickers contract. There’s so they said was right, we’ll build a rival ship. The state will build it, and it will fly to India. And we’ll have these two projects they are 100 which is private and they are one on one which is public. They are 100 came in ahead of target, under budget, and it flew to Canada and back without mishap. The r1 or one was late over budget over engineered and it on its maiden voyage to India, it got as far as northern France before it crashed, killing 48 people including the Minister for air in the government. So that was quite a nice controlled experiment. In whether the government is as good at innovating as the private sector? And the answer was fairly clear,
Robert Bryce : 42:07
and deadly, and and a deadly answer. Well, so let’s go from that now to come to the issue of hydraulic fracturing, which you talk about as well, which has fundamentally changed America’s energy fortunes. The oil and gas industry now in the US is clearly being hurt very badly by the downturn in oil and gas prices. But here’s an example of sustained innovation by a lot of different private companies spending 10s of billions of dollars making as I see it, hydrocarbons incredibly cheap for consumers, but the companies that that perfected these technologies, none have made any money. I mean, it is a remarkable example of innovation where consumers win, but the innovators fail. I mean, being being profitable.
Matt Ridley : 42:57
Absolutely right. And that is quite a common sense. I probably don’t pull that idea out enough in my book. But you know, if you think about railways, you know, they benefit consumers enormously, but huge numbers of people go broke trying to build railways. And it’s quite often the case this, and the hydraulic fracturing story is is truly remarkable. In that sense. It couldn’t have happened anywhere but the US, because nowhere else has got the Wildcat energy industry everywhere else is either nationalized, or it’s big national champions like shell and BP and things like that, you know, the small, experimental Wildcat industry, doing deals with landowners, you know, is a really important private bar with access to deep pockets of capital to and you know, if government was good at innovation, then, you know, Mexico and Brazil and Venezuela and all these companies, countries with huge National Oil corporations, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc. They would have done the hydraulic fracturing revolution. They didn’t they led left it to an old played outfield in the suburbs of Fort Worth. And a guy called George Mitchell he wouldn’t take no for an answer when his engineers kept saying we can’t get any more gas out of this field. Try this try that try something else poured his fortune into it very nearly ruined himself in the process. And one of his engineers Nick Steinberger stumbled upon a recipe that worked really well. And so they say some slick water frack
Robert Bryce : 44:27
just like what you just based basically water with a little algaecide and a little soap and a lot of sand and suddenly,
Matt Ridley : 44:34
yeah, but crucial again, was putting the water in first and the sand in second or something like that, you know, I mean, it’s it was a trial and error. It’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of tinkering.
Robert Bryce : 44:45
So explain you mentioned our mutual friend Chris right in the book and I’m a great fan of his what was Chris’s role he was at his company was Pinnacle at that time, wasn’t it was Matt was mapping the the fractures in the rock in the substance surface.
Matt Ridley : 45:01
Yeah, that’s right. And I mean, Chris had developed these devices for sort of measuring pressure on the ground or for mapping with his micro seismic you know, so you can work out what’s going on underground and and he was therefore trying to analyze how fractures propagate through rock when you when you use hydraulic fracturing to crack the rock and and he basically sort of came up with a formula that seemed to fit what was happening and argued that the the fractures sort of spread one way and in fact they were going the other way and, and he felt that they were bet the fractures were best propped open using thicker gels, not thinner ones, and he learned how to do 180 and say, You know what, I’m misreading my data. I think actually, the fractures are propagating laterally and that they’re doing so with the slick water is better cracking the rock than the Then the gels. So instead of putting nasty toxic gels down, we’ve just put water down, basically. So
Robert Bryce : 46:09
he then No, yeah, go ahead.
Matt Ridley : 46:11
Yeah, so he’s not he’s not the inventor of this, but he’s the is the person who understands the physics of what’s going on underground. And he’s helping to explain it to people. And therefore, it’s quite a nice example of how the, the, the wild cat is on the ground and coming back to the physicists like Chris and saying what’s going on, and the two are feeding off each other, the science and the technology. And Chris then became a pioneer of hydraulic fracturing and is one of the most efficient operators in the industry and such a smart guy and really understands energy better than anybody I know. With yourself accepted, of course.
Robert Bryce : 46:48
Chris Wright, by the way, is the founder and CEO of liberty oilfield services in Denver and has been talking about writing about and better A great proponent of American energy. But yeah, I didn’t know until I read your book. I’ve known Chris for several years but didn’t know his role in the way that you explained it. But I think it is remarkable and now the the shakeout in the hydraulic fracturing, business and drilling were in the Permian Basin here in Texas, which I would argue is perhaps the most drilled province. I know it is the most drilled province in the world, still producing massive amounts of oil and gas and so much gas, in fact that it’s being flared, tremendous waste of available energy, but it’s indicative of just the massive quantities of, of energy that are being produced. Well, let me follow on that because I think this follows on pretty pretty well in terms of this idea of of available capital and people willing to experiment you wrote, innovation happens when people are free to think, experiment and speculate. It happens when people can trade with each other and happens where people are relatively prosperous, not desperate. It is somewhat contagious. It needs an investment, it generally happens in cities. Your your argument, and it’s in your title is about freedom, that this, that that liberty is essential to this idea of being able to think freely. So. But you also talk about China and the rise of China and some of their innovation. So how does that square with repressive regimes able to really facilitate innovation? And if not, why not?
Matt Ridley : 48:24
Right? Well, I have to have a special explanation for why China is a very innovative country at the moment, given that it’s not a very free country. And this may sound like special bleeding, but I genuinely think that I can explain that. And the answer is that China, after Chairman Mao died dung shopping, brought in a new approach in which he basically said, so long as you don’t deny the Communist Party, and so long as you don’t try and do political innovation, then you can get on and be an entrepreneur. And in fact, you’ll be even more freer than your competitors in the West? Because the won’t be that many petty officials saying Have you broken local environmental regulations or local zoning and planning regulations? There’s none of that nonsense, you know, you can just go ahead and do what you want. And so that to a remarkable extent, for the last 40 years that has been true in China, that entrepreneurs have been very free to experiment, as long as they don’t get into politics, as if that’s been the sort of compromise that was reached. I think that’s changing quite fast under G. I think he is such an authoritarian figure. so intent on top down direction of what people do. so intent on deciding what innovations he wants to happen, that he will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. And I think that China is running on fumes now. It is seeing extraordinary innovation in terms of consumer, digital electronics and all that kind of thing still happening. You know, all the Alibaba and 10 cent and WeChat and all that kind of stuff is remarkable. But at a certain point that will dry up and the the the hope that China is going to be the, the the, the area that changes artificial intelligence by technology and nuclear power and all this kind of thing. I suspect they will disappoint. Because what is happening in China now is a sort of replay of what happened when the Song Dynasty fell, and after a mangled interregnum the Ming Dynasty arrived. The song emperors were absolutely determined to devolve power. They, they sure they still monopolized military power and so on, but in terms of economic decision making, they they delegated it to the local level, and this was around 1000 years ago and this was when China invented, you know, the compass, gunpowder, paper money, possibly Printing all these extraordinary wave of innovation that came out of China around the same time. The Ming emperors said, No, no, we want mandarins in Beijing to tell everyone what to do every minute of every day. And every merchant must send a report on how much inventory he’s got once a month, and he needs to get a permit from a mandarin before he can leave his local village to go to another. And by the way, we’re banning international trade. And they killed China. I mean, China then turned gradually into an extremely poor and benighted countries that produce new innovations for several hundred years. So in miniature, and at speed, we’re seeing the same switch from a relatively free country beneath the surface of politics to a relatively non free country. And I wouldn’t bet on China long work long term.
Robert Bryce : 51:54
So who would you bet on?
Matt Ridley : 51:56
It’s a really good question. And in the book, I say, Well, what about India? India is a an enormous country a great big Free Trade Zone. It’s a very well educated country. It’s a country with huge investments in the service industry already. It’s an English speaking country. It’s a country that values science and technology. It’s got a lot going for it. It’s a country that has a sort of addiction to what you might call spontaneous order, or exchange and specialization or markets, you know, I mean, it’s not it’s run in the blood of Indians.
Robert Bryce : 52:29
And yet it’s honestly enormously poor, the infrastructure is terrible.
Matt Ridley : 52:33
Well, that’s the main problem is the infrastructure and the corruption are huge problems. And if India could sort that it could conquer the world. And by the way, I think India is where it all started. I mean, if you go back far enough in history, before China achieves anything before the Mediterranean achieves anything, it’s the Ganges and the Indus Valley where you really get innovation and civilization starting things like the invention of the desk. Little numeral system and the idea of zero and all these kind of things, which I also write about in the book. Sure, but it might not be India, it might be back to America. It might be a Brazil, it might be a small benighted, rain soaked island that has just broken free of an empire off the coast of a continent called Britain.
Robert Bryce : 53:26
Well, but but to go back to where you were talking about China, though, that this I mean, what you’ve argued or what I heard you say I’ll replay it back was that the power of the political power has to be diffused that it can’t be too concentrated that that correct in that the diffused what
Matt Ridley : 53:43
what made America so brilliant was its federal system.
Robert Bryce : 53:47
Right. So that that the concentration of power that the Communist Chinese want to insist on now, right, you’re saying that Geez, crack down then is going to prevent it from moving forward. India does have this federal system but is that is the government there in the too weak and the corruption too weak to, or the corruption too prevalent to allow that, that synergy of different forces and capital and technology and, and intellect to come together to allow it to really create an economy that’s big enough and robust enough to bring it out of still what, you know, overwhelming it
Matt Ridley : 54:27
has achieved remarkable things in the last generation, you know, I mean, India was a unbelievably impoverished and backward place under the socialists who took over after independence. But then along came Manmohan Singh, the finance minister in around 1990. And, and said, let’s try and liberate the economy, let’s do it, pro market reforms. And it had a remarkable effect. and India became, you know, a tiger that grew at extremely rapid rates, and so Enormous improvements in technology and everything else. It’s then sunk back into a degree of economic nationalism, as you say, poor infrastructure and corruption, and, and so on. But, but don’t write it off. There’s a lot happening in India today.
Robert Bryce : 55:20
But it’s interesting, your point about the United, I’m bullish on the US, I think, you know, for all the problems, we have political division, and the rest of we still have a relatively young population, our demographics are positive in migration, people will still want to move here, right. And, you know, for all the talk about immigration, that we’re still an attractive place for people to come to from all over the world. And we still take this whole constitution thing seriously. I mean, you know, people in the United States, we, you know, the First Amendment, Second Amendment, these are things that are in our daily discourse and these
Matt Ridley : 55:50
rule of law, property rights, all that kind of stuff, but also you’ve got the competition between regimes in the US. So just a few weeks ago, Elon Musk was cogitating about moving from California to Texas. And the reason he was doing that was he didn’t like the rules in California, which were being made more and more difficult for an entrepreneur like him. That’s exactly what entrepreneurs did in Europe for hundreds of years. one of Europe’s secrets was that it never got unified into an empire. Lots of people tried it, you know, Charles, the fifth, Napoleon, Hitler, it never last for very long when you try and turn Europe into an empire, he’s got too many bits of stick out too many offshore islands, too many mountain ranges that get in the way of your armies and things. So it’s a very difficult place to unify, unlike China, and it’s reverse flow outwards rather than through the middle. There’s another reason so there’s geographical reasons why Europe never gets unified. And that resulted in a series of competitive city states and, and countries. That for a long time, were saying to innovators and entrepreneurs if you don’t like the regime, you’re under over there. Come and work. Mind, I can give you a more congenial Place to Work roughly as is happening between US states today.
Robert Bryce : 57:08
That’s interesting. So then as competes with London competes with Singapore competes with well, Singapore’s not in Europe. So
Matt Ridley : 57:14
someone like Gutenberg, you know, didn’t like the conditions in mind. So moved to Strasburg, or was it the other way around? I can’t remember. But you know, it was it was that sort of thing. And by the way, this is the problem with the European Union, which is not good at innovation has shown it completely incapable of producing a digital giant to rival Amazon, Google apple or in Chinese equivalents, you know that it’s the huge failure on the part of Europe’s but is killed by a technology, a lot of consumer goods etc. is not you’re not seeing the innovation you do elsewhere, on the whole where we have to rely on other people doing our innovation for us in Europe. Why? Because the European Union has this model that it wants the rules to be the same everywhere. It doesn’t want Safety to be the same everywhere. It wants the rules to be the same everywhere. You know, that’s the difference. It wants harmonization, not
Robert Bryce : 58:07
right and the currency which to me was, well, let’s talk about the since you’ve broached this already. You’ve been an advocate for Brexit for a long time. And Northern Ireland is still now in the middle of the whole discussion of Brexit, at least from where I’m saying, Tell me what your view is on the progress that Boris Johnson has made on Brexit and how you see it playing out now. And you think obviously, well, I’m I’m going to assume I’m going to I’m going to teach you here not, you know, prompt you. You think Brexit is really going to allow Britain to thrive and to be able to take to reinvigorate its economy. Is that fair? Is that fair statement?
Matt Ridley : 58:46
Yep. That is roughly what I think. I wasn’t necessarily in favor of Brexit. I was in favor of us trying to persuade the European Union to reform IT systems to be more pro innovation and David cameras set out to achieve that reform. And I said, Good, you know, good luck to him. And he basically got a complete brick wall from the European Union, which point I said, right? Well, if if they weren’t change, then we’ve got to go. I actually edited the book over there on the shelf called, change or go, I was one of the many editors on it. And so I campaigned long with many others for us to leave the European Union. To many of our surprise, we won that referendum by a relatively secure margin. And we then faced a four year rearguard action by the establishment, within politics within the civil service within business to try to reverse the decision of that referendum. And it Kalman and at the same time, the European Union tried to drive such a hard bargain that we would change our minds. The good old British people said, No, we said we want to leave, we want to leave we voted. We’re eventually they were able Got a champion in Boris Johnson who enter the country in an election last December saying, Do you want me to get Brexit done? That was his slogan. And the people returned a landslide majority for him to do so. So we then did leave on the 31st of January legally, but in a transition period where none of the rules could change for a year that that position comes to an end on the 31st of December, the European Union has said and lots of people in Britain have said, well, because of this pandemic, surely we better delay that. Lets extend the transition. And Boris Johnson has said No, we are not extending the transition We are leaving at the end of the year. And that is now accepted by the European Union. So we’re hammering out a trade deal with the European Union. They are trying to drive a hard bargain and they’re on the whole, cutting off their nose to spite their face if they do so because they trade with us as much as we trade with them. In fact, they export more to us than we do to them. We are simultaneously opening trade Free Trade Agreement talks with the United States, with Canada, with New Zealand, with Australia, and we have lots of people in our country who want to creep back into protectionism. And so what if the Americans send horrible food over here? We can’t have that. Why not? It’s great food we all eat it when we go on holiday to Disneyland. What’s wrong with it? And there’s this myth out there that somehow the Americans wash their chicken in chlorine. We don’t and God knows who started this. A it’s not true. You don’t wash your chicken in Korean you course you wash your chicken like we do, like everybody does. But it’s not in chlorine. But this phrase chlorinated chicken has caught on and be there’s no, there’s never going to be a great Transatlantic Trade and chickens. You know, I mean, your chickens are no cheaper than ours. So why would we go all the way to Georgia to buy chickens when we could grow them at home, or from nearer nearer to home. So so those are the arguments we’re having at the moment over trade. But for me the prize is the prize of Brexit is to unleash innovation. And so just to give you an example, biotechnology and agriculture is impossible in the European Union. If we change the rules, we can do it in the UK, we’ve got great science, we will then see a gold rush of entrepreneurs, Britain saying, right, we can work on the kinds of crops we want to in the European context. In Britain, because it’s got different rules. All we got to do is use the same rules about what a GMO is that that Canada and Argentina and Australia and America, us. You know, we’re not talking about going down some route of doing things dangerously. We’re just trying getting to the root of making it possible. Sorry, that was a long
Robert Bryce : 1:02:49
No, no, no, no, it’s great. No, it’s good. But I it’s particularly interesting, I think on the on the agricultural front about GMOs, right, that that’s one of the key issues, right. And you’re A countryman Mark Lynas has been a great advocate who I’ve met a few times Eric friendly with it. He was saying no, this this is innovation that’s absolutely needed. And and you talk about gene splicing in in your new book how innovation works. But that that’s critical. I think that it is critical, especially, you know, if climate change is going for going to face significant changes in climate, well, then we’re going to have to adapt and we can’t tires, tire hands by saying, Oh, no, we’re not going to modify plants. Well, we’ve been modifying plans. We’ve been modifying animals for a long time, you know, breeding the best time to get these, you know, the best results. So, so anyway, back to that. So what about your bullish potentially I’m bullish on the US you’re bullish on Britain, we should be we’re, you know, root for the home team. But other countries can could be somebody like a country like Vietnam or another country, an emerging economy that could foster the kind of innovation that would allow them to be a major player. That we’re not, you know, is not not thought about as one of these possibilities.
Matt Ridley : 1:04:04
Yeah, I mean, the Asian tigers are always interesting and you know, Japan at its moment in the sun. And it isn’t such a great source of innovation these days because of its sort of over mature economy and rise up but
Robert Bryce : 1:04:16
big demographic problems,
Matt Ridley : 1:04:18
and then a huge demographic problem. Yeah, exactly. And but the interesting point, though, which is assumed by you and me in this conversation, is that it has to be somewhere. In other words, it’s not going to be everywhere. And why is that? And if you look at history, this has been true, you know, California really dominated innovation for a period, Victorian Britain totally dominated innovation, the Netherlands at one stage, Renaissance Italy, ancient Greece, you know, parts of China, you know, it’s, it’s the innovation bushfire doesn’t burn over the whole globe, it breaks out in one place very intensely. And that’s partly because it hurts attract talent to it, and so on. It’s in once it gets started, the auto catalytic effect kicks in and it just gets better and better and races away until it starts to do something stupid, like the Chinese did to kill a song period of innovation. But why? But is it possible that in the 21st century, the country that does innovation best might not be a country at all? It might be up there in space, you know, it might be the the web, it might be the cloud. If we can get blockchain working well, so that effectively contracts and currencies and all those kind of things can float free of national boundaries, then it’s just possible that the country that becomes the most innovative will actually be not a country at all. That’s an interesting thought that that, that I don’t actually have Because it’s occurred to me since I wrote the book.
Robert Bryce : 1:06:02
So that that would be the ultimate decentralization right? The ultimate absolution diffusion of power. Yeah, fusion of you know that idea. I mean, I wrote about this in, in, in my book a question of power and it’s one that still fascinates me the rise of electric cooperatives in America. Well, that was part of the New Deal. Right? And it was George Norris and and Sam Rayburn and Burton Wheeler, along with FDR pass rural electrification act, public utility Holding Company Act. Well, that diffused economic and political power throughout the US way that perhaps no other bit of legislation ever has achieved. Right, because then
Matt Ridley : 1:06:38
right, and I don’t think we’re thinking nearly hard enough about decentralization. You know, I just think that that again, and again, we keep drawing part of the center. We do it in the UK, do it in European Union, and governments do it in Washington as well.
Robert Bryce : 1:06:53
Is it just the nature of government that it wants to agglomerate more and more power that that’s just the way it always Yeah,
Matt Ridley : 1:06:59
I mean, I think it’s It’s it’s public choice theory. It’s that, you know, bureaucrats are in the end self interested. They, they argue that they’re not but of course they, you know, given the opportunity to give themselves bigger budgets and bigger responsibilities, they always take them if they can,
Robert Bryce : 1:07:16
and they measure it by how many laws they can pass. Right right at success. Right. Exactly. They can necessarily repeal. Yeah, but we’ve been talking for more than an hour I like we talked a little bit about vaccines and we’ve talked about optimism and where innovation is going to happen. So look into your since you have your crystal ball out now. So what about the virus? What about Coronavirus? What’s the where do we go from here and this be the last topic we talked about? But I mean, the prize I mean, I’m not going to expect Pearl, Pearl Kendrick and Grace enderlin to come along again and be selfless. I mean, but the potential prize for the the pharmaceutical company that says Oh, we’ve got the vaccine I mean, this could be this is the prize of the money. Era, right? You pass this?
Matt Ridley : 1:08:02
Yes, but the vaccines have not been profitable for the pharmaceutical industry on the whole. And that’s one of the reasons we find ourselves in this bind, where we’re not ready to go with a with a potential vaccine for this disease. vaccine development has been horribly neglected, I would say as a as an example of innovations that we should have been doing much more of in the last generation. You know, instead of inventing new video games, it would be nice if we invented a few better vaccines. And the reason is because pharmaceutical industries can’t make money out of them. It’s very expensive to develop, and then it works. Or it doesn’t, if it works, if it doesn’t work, you don’t make any money. If it does work, it does itself out of business. And you know, suddenly the epidemic goes away. It’s not like a static or something which just goes on being a money spinner for generations. And so, so on the whole, the private sector has not invested in innovation in vaccines to anything like the extent it should Nor has the public sector. I mean, what on earth is the World Health Organization been up to all these years? It’s certainly, you know, five years ago, they put out a statement saying the greatest threat to human health in the 21st century is climate change. Well, that doesn’t to me suggests an organization is concentrating on his day job to protect us from pandemics rain. And so, but there are some smart initiatives out there and a lot of them came from the Gates Foundation, which I think is a great force for good in this area. Gates set up a prize called an advanced market commitment for developing a pneumococcal vaccine. Essentially, they said any company that goes out and does this and gets an effective pneumococcal vaccine that can be used in the developing world to prevent kids dying of this respiratory disease, mostly poor kids, and therefore that you know, they can’t afford to buy expensive vaccines and if you can afford A vaccine that does that, we will top up the price you can charge so that you get properly rewarded. But the vaccine is available cheaply. And that worked brilliantly three companies, one when the contracts, three quarter of a million lives have been saved already. Now, gates, together with the Wellcome Trust in London and a couple of other governments have set up something called the Coalition for epidemic preparedness innovation, which is essentially saying, Can we get generic vaccine development platforms oven ready so that when there’s a pandemic, we’re ready to go? They set this up in 2017. It’s exactly what we need. It’s too it was too late for this one, it should have been set up 10 years earlier. So that’s the kind of initiative that I think we need to be seeing. It will be an innovation that solves this problem. It might be an app, it might be an antiviral medication. It might not be a vaccine, you know, might prove very difficult to develop.
Robert Bryce : 1:11:01
So how soon then? I mean, are you bullish that we could get something by the end of the year? I mean, these have long time long lead times and enormous costs and so on. Yeah. And, as you mentioned, gates, there’s another example of decentralization where you have a vast philanthropic organization that can operate independent of governments and independent states.
Matt Ridley : 1:11:23
Well, I actually I had a disagreement with Bill Gates once about exactly this in a conversation. He was haranguing a group of people in in London over lunch about the British government’s aid program, because there was a threat to cut it and say, you know, we’re wasting a lot of this money, we shouldn’t be spending it on a and he said, that’s the disgraceful position you should not be taking that you should be pressing for more aid to the developing world. And I said, well hang on a minute bill. You’ve got gone out there and shown that you can do malaria around, you know, malaria was getting worse until 2003. It’s now getting better. That’s because you champion the insecticide impregnated better net. And that has been responsible for most of the diminution in malaria deaths. That’s fantastic. Lots of other achievements that the Gates Foundation has done. Doesn’t that prove that far from Britain? I mean, it proves that aid works. But it also proves that government aid has not worked, you know, they should have done this 40 years ago, they should have the, you know, what were they doing all these decades when until you came along and showed them how to do it. So it’s your very achievements that show us that we are wasting a lot of our aid money that’s gone done through the public sector. And because I address this criticism as a compliment, he didn’t quite know how to respond.
Robert Bryce : 1:12:56
So back to just I’ll just post it again. So you’re hopeful then that we’re going to have some vaccine some treatment then because of the amount of talent money interest in solving this problem now that we could get something that yes, the halts the pandemic in a year in less than a year?
Matt Ridley : 1:13:15
Well, I, it’s very hard to predict the timescale vaccine development is a pretty slow business. We haven’t been able to speed it up very much. But we have got so many different new ideas about how to do vaccines now. You know, messenger RNA vaccines, all sorts of different techniques that haven’t really been tried. And in the Ebola epidemic, we got some of them to the point where they look very promising. And then of course, Ebola went away. So we weren’t able to finalize that. But I think we are capable of producing a vaccine quicker and more effectively than 20 years ago. It’s a pity we haven’t been ready to do that before this. And the one thing we’ve shown in this pandemic is Some of the lead times some of the delays in the process of innovation are completely unnecessary. And we should cut out the reasons for them. You know, we’ve been taking five or six years to approve a diagnostic product. Well, we’re now approving them in two weeks. You know, that suggests to me that there’s been there’s been a lot of people who’ve been taking too long over decisions. And so I think we’re going to be able to find that we can speed up vaccine development, we’re already running phase two and phase three trials alongside each other and things like that. So I would hope that we would have an effective vaccine to this virus by the end of 2020, which would be far quicker than most people think. Sure, but I think I know not even I’m not gonna put 100% on that. Of course, of course, I think it’s slightly more likely than not,
Robert Bryce : 1:14:55
gotcha. But then we gonna need 7 billion doses. Roughly,
Matt Ridley : 1:15:01
well, scaling up is a big part of the problem. Yeah. Right.
Robert Bryce : 1:15:04
So just a couple of last things. So you’ve written nine books. Does it get any easier? jigs are always hard is there is it is the and I asked this as a writer as well did was this book harder than your other books were easier.
Matt Ridley : 1:15:20
This book was not as hard as it might have been for a very simple and rather ridiculous reason that as I get older, I can’t hold as much in my head as I used to I find, so I can’t research for a week and then write for two days or research for a month and then write for a week. I have to research as I go along. So I decided to break this book up into bite sized chunks. Basically, I would tell one story, and I specifically set out to tell stories because people love stories, you know, and you can’t just write a book full of principles and theories you you’ve got to tell human stories. So I thought I would research to death one particular story of an innovation and write it up as I was doing it, and then turn to a completely different subject. So I broke it up into bite sized chunks that made it easier. The other thing that, of course, has made it easier. 20 years ago, I was writing books about genomics, and I was spending weeks in libraries, making laborious notes in notebooks, from papers in academic journals, which I located by tracking down the references in other papers in academic journals, and so on. And it was quite a difficult process. Now, thanks to the internet, I can read those papers at home, and I can track them down instantly. And I can do much more random searching. So it it ought to be much easier. But then, of course, you know, I’m becoming senile, so it’s getting harder for that reason.
Robert Bryce : 1:16:56
So, do last question. So working on another book, Now I mean, I, what I find is you write one and everybody hates but what are you doing next? Are you have you started something else are you holding? Yeah, for the time being? Give me a break,
Matt Ridley : 1:17:09
Robert. I mean, I say this one hasn’t even been published in the UK as it’s out.
Robert Bryce : 1:17:16
But you know, but I am already thinking about another book myself, what’s
Matt Ridley : 1:17:19
your what’s the one you’re thinking about?
Robert Bryce : 1:17:21
Well, you know, I’ve been focused so much on the energy field, but I, you know, what is that going to look like? What is the future of energy going to look like? I mean, are we really going to, I’m very concerned, very focused on the issue of land use, because I think this is one of the big breaks on renewable energy deployment. In fact, there is a paper that was put out by Cal Berkeley some guys that you know, University of California Berkeley, they don’t mention the land use in their in their entire thing, except right in time, and yet we’re going to deploy 1000 gigawatts of new wind and solar Well, maybe maybe you think about where you’re going to put this. This is.
Matt Ridley : 1:17:56
The whole point of moving on from the medieval economy was says We didn’t have to use the whole landscape to produce our energy, we could get it out of a smaller on the ground and said, I think it’s retrograde to go back to using using these. I mean, the birds need the wind, you know, the plants need the sunlight, and why are we in, you know, no plant or animal eats natural gas or oil
Robert Bryce : 1:18:22
or call? So your answer is you’re not working on something new. Is that what you’re telling me?
Matt Ridley : 1:18:27
No, I’m not working on anything yet. But I have a feeling that a book on the origin of viruses might be of interest, I think.
Robert Bryce : 1:18:36
I think it could well be
Matt Ridley : 1:18:37
so people may have had that thought.
Robert Bryce : 1:18:40
Yes, there may be more people on that then then we are thinking about so. My last question and you know, we’ve kind of already discussed it but what excites you now what do you mean what you’ve had a lot of experience you you have a lot of political experience you’ve been in business. What really is motivating you now that you know Innovation is a big topic but what really gets you interested in excited these days
Matt Ridley : 1:19:06
I pinch myself at my luck at being alive. When we can understand the farther reaches of space, we can see images from the moons of Saturn, we can read the genomes of sea creatures that we didn’t even know existed a few years ago. We can understand the symphony of the dance of the proteins inside a cell that makes it work we, we know the secret of life we, you know, isn’t it just fantastic the knowledge that’s available? And, you know, one of my passions is bird watching an animal behavior. And, you know, a friend of mine wrote a book about seabird migrations the other day, based on these new satellite tags that enable us to work out that Some birds are doing 15,000 Round Round 15,000 mile round trips in two weeks while their mate is incubating the egg before going back onto their shift on the egg. Yeah, I mean, what a world we can live in where we can understand things like that. So what motivates me is the continuing expansion of knowledge. I love it
Robert Bryce : 1:20:27
perfect. That’s great. There was a we added we had a downy woodpecker on our feeder just yesterday downy woodpecker it’s maybe
Matt Ridley : 1:20:33
Robert Bryce : 1:20:34
big smallest smallest woodpecker in North America. That was a beautiful Okay, so yeah, being on lockdown but excites me. Like just being you know, really seeing nature again. And that’s been really just you know, in indulging it it is the wrong word but luxuriating in it, I think is the better, better word. So another common interest we have? Well, look, Matt, you’ve been more than generous with your time. Today the book is just wonderful. It is a collection of stories about innovators is a deeply human book, which is one of the things that I truly like about it bringing to light Pearl, Pearl, Kendrick, Grace underling, elderly, and other innovators and telling their stories. I highly recommend it how innovation works, and why it flourishes in freedom.
Matt Ridley : 1:21:22
Well as it’s been a, it’s been a real honor and a pleasure because some years ago, I began to notice that whenever I read anything really sensible and intelligent and interesting and well written on energy, it often had this name brace at the top and I thought I needed to find out who this guy was. He was so good. So I’ve it’s been a been great to get to know you. And it’s been wonderful to spend the dot today talking.
Robert Bryce : 1:21:46
Great. Well, thanks, Matt. I just have a couple of other quick comments for our listeners, the power hungry podcast. Thanks for listening. I’m Robert Bryce. If you want more information on me, I’m easy to find Matt Ridley’s easy to find on the interweb you can use the Google I’m at Robert bryce.com is my website I’m on Twitter at at power hungry, pw or hungry. You can also look at my new documentary juice how electricity explains the world. It’s on the web at juice, the movie.com. And you can also read it on iTunes, Amazon and your other streaming services. So, signing off for now. Thanks again, Matt. It’s been great and thanks to all you for listening and I will be back with another episode very soon.