American mathematicians’ contributions to the engineering and production of equipment in World War II included the exploration of ways to improve choices between competing designs and maximize the value of experimental testing of prototypes. After the war, these contributions were extended, particularly at the RAND Corporation. Working on such matters, Kenneth Arrow took a keen interest in testing as a paradigm for information gathering in economic decision-making and in encouraging investment in R&D as an information-gathering exercise essential to making informed choices in military systems acquisition. He later extended insights about the shortcomings of information gathering as a market activity to his touchstone analysis of disparities of information between physician and patient as a crucial aspect of the economics of medical care. While it is difficult to trace the precise influence of the work of Arrow and others around him on engineering and R&D management, the issues they grappled with have remained relevant for more than half a century.
Research and Development, Testing, and the Economics of Information, 1937–63
William Thomas is a senior science policy analyst at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, and writes for AIP’s publication, FYI Science Policy News. He earned a PhD in the history of science from Harvard University in 2007 and is the author of Rational Action: The Sciences of Policy in Britain and America, 1940–1960 (2015).
William Thomas; Research and Development, Testing, and the Economics of Information, 1937–63. History of Political Economy 1 December 2020; 52 (S1): 168–190. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-8717977
Download citation file: