Muh’ Science!

Even among those that profess a belief in limited government there is an ready willingness to join hands with the big-government progressives on the subject of science funding. I mean, any fool can see we need government to fund science – no profit-oriented business would fund basic science research if the probability of a marketable product resulting were unknown. A recent article in Scientific American (Feb 2016, pg 11)  editorializes on this very viewpoint – that “without government resources, basic science will grind to a halt.” The irony within the article is that the author doesn’t realize the evidence he cites to advance his position in fact undermines, rather than bolsters, his argument. He claims private profit seeking businesses would never have an incentive to pursue such research… right after citing how such businesses used to do exactly that (AT&T Bell Labs and Xerox PARC). Gee, I wonder why they stopped? You don’t suppose it had anything to do with the ever expanding growth of government funding of basic science research? Indeed, why would any company make investments into basic science research if some other large entity (the government) is going to do it for them by publicly funding the research and freely publishing the results? The author then doubles down on the cognitive dissonance by calling those who believe that profit-driven companies will altruistically pay for basic science naïve. So people are naïve to believe that something that the author just cited as a past occurrence (privately backed basic science research) could occur in the future? Indeed, although it did snow last winter, now that it is summer I think it is naïve to believe it could ever snow again.

Truly there is no clearer case of the cart pushing the horse. The increase in public funding of basic science research was not a response to declining private funding; rather, it caused that very decline by providing an incentive for private industry to shift the risk burden onto the public.

If one is still unable to imagine a world without socialized science funding, then let’s examine history to see what the future might bring. Not only did we have the private labs of AT&T Bell Labs as well as Xerox PARC as free market models, we also had non-profit philanthropic foundations, such as the now over one-hundred year old Research Corporation for Science Advancement. Research Corporation, while philanthropic, follows a sound business model. They invest in basic scientific research at universities and when that research yields results that can be commercialized they package the technology and transfer the patents and use the profits to support future research grants.

Imagine that, a free market approach to funding basic science research that is both sustainable (success breeds more success) and does not require theft (taxation) in order to fund it. These are but a few examples of how the free market did, and can once again, provide support for basic science research and puts the lie to the assertion of the state-worshipers that such things are impossible without government support.

4 thoughts on “Muh’ Science!

  1. Bob Kobelski

    A timely message given the closure of DuPont’s CRD at the Experimental Station.

    Have you considered that this publically funded research is not in the public domain but rather faculty and universities are free to sell the fruits of these publicly funded investigations for their own benefit?

  2. Greg Morin Post author

    Well that depends on how one defines “public”. All the research is published irrespective of how it was funded, at least at the Universities (I know, that was how my career began, the whole point was “publish” or “perish”). So it is public in the sense that someone willing to go the library or do the searches can uncover the information for “free”. It is not locked up somewhere behind a corporate NDA. And I think any NSF funded research has to actually be published somewhere or made available in a “free” forum, but not sure how that works, they were only just implementing it when I got out of the University system.

    Typically the University benefits more than any individual investigator or PI (Principal Investigator) so to the extent that is going on it is no different than the usual sort of cronyism that goes on between the government and “private” entities… so it creates a perverse incentive to maintain the system… the researchers are happy to get boatloads of money and the politicians are happy to provide freebies they don’t have to pay for but from which they also benefit by receiving direct or indirect support from those sectors so benefited.

    1. Bob Kobelski

      I see patents that are derived from the research be assigned to the investigator and the university and being licensed to private sector companies that make a profit on federally funded research. I also see faculty take the fruits of federally funded research and start their own companies. Your point about the university reaping the biggest benefit is, generally, true – Nobel Laureate John Fenn and Yale being a good example.

      I see the same thing being done with federal agency “R&D”, intellectual property paid for with taxpayer dollars being sold to private sector companies.

  3. Greg Morin Post author

    The sinister aspect of private companies using publicly funded research is that then becomes the de facto excuse of the government to tax any industry that has directly or indirectly or even tangentially benefited from the products of such companies. It establishes a specious claim of legitimacy of their “right” to tax the citizenry at any level desired since if one ever protests that such and such tax rate is too high they can simply rejoined with “yes, but you benefited”. That is of course believed to shut down all debate on the matter and is their favorite excuse as it can be applied to any tax and any rate at ay time.

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