It's Free Market Time For Science, Cut Publicly Funded Science

Thanks to science, humans have accomplished great things. We've cured diseases, developed new technologies and explored space. Such a legacy is probably why both Democrats and Republicans have increased federal funding for scientific research in recent years. But despite the perceived benefits of government funding for science, the investment is unnecessary, economically harmful, and discouraging to open debate. As a result, the public shouldn't have to provide it.

There is an egregious myth in circulation that without public funding science would die out, so let’s deal with that first. The popular story tells us that the private sector can't be trusted to invest in science by itself, since businesses don't think past their bottom lines and won't invest in basic research. This doesn't stand up to scrutiny, however. If public funding is a necessity, we should see evidence of this in history. But we don't. For example, during the 19th century, according to historian Thomas Woods, Britain provided almost no public assistance to science, yet the country became the most industrialized in the world and, interestingly enough, the home to some of the world's greatest scientific minds. Meanwhile, France and Germany invested extensively in science research but lagged far behind Britain.  

So contrary to the popular mantra, the profit motive is what drove industrialists in the 1800s to conduct basic research. Since the government wasn't doing it, and they realized they had to continue innovating to remain profitable, these businessmen invested their own money. Rarely are these important historical episodes discussed when Congress appropriates money for science. But had France and Germany outperformed Britain, advocates of public science funding wouldn't let us forget about it. But "since the realty is just the opposite," Woods quips, "we hear complete silence." 

There are modern examples as well. Woods reports than Japan's civil research and development is almost entirely funded by the private sector, and the country's academic research is the most privatized in the world. Still, "Japan engages in an enormous amount of basic research, but in industrial laboratories rather than tax-funded universities."

Science would survive without state funding, but surely public investment in research encourages economic growth. No it doesn't. According to Terence Kealey, biochemist and author of The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, public investment in science has no impact on economic growth. He points out that the U.S. government first significantly increased its science funding in 1940, and the underlying rates of economic growth haven't change in 70 years as the spending on science continues to grow. The same argument was made in Britain in the 1980s, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cut funding for British universities. But Kealey points out that these cuts "...coincided with Britain's [economic] recovery." In short, we spend billions of dollars each year on science and see no net benefit from the investment. The likely reasons are that public money simply displaces private investment in research. 

But besides its economic inefficiencies, government investment encourages the politicization and distortion of science. As both Ben Goldfarb and I noted in recent PolicyMic articles, much research has indicted the federal government for its role in the obesity epidemic. But since the government has a vested interest in maintaining the problem policies, this research is often ignored, or the researchers who conduct it are sometimes denied federal research grants because their conclusions are politically unhelpful. As Dr. George Mann put it, "To be a dissenter is to be unfunded."

A similar conclusion can be drawn from the government's stance on tobacco use as well. Because the state has decided that complete abstention is the only way to reduce tobacco use, and because it provides a lot of the funding for tobacco research, evidence that supports the use of smoking alternatives or disproves the effectiveness of anti-tobacco legislation is dismissed. The result, according to Dr. Michael Siegel, is "...that cigarettes now have the FDA seal of approval, while safer products — such as electronic cigarettes — have an almost insurmountable barrier in front of them if they want to promote themselves effectively in the marketplace (i.e., as safer alternatives to tobacco cigarettes)." The losers in this whole thing, of course, are consumers, the same people paying for the racket in the first place.

Taxpayers' money should be invested only in goods and services that the market can't provide and when the original investment creates more benefits than it costs. In the case of publicly funded science, we have neither. It's time to eliminate it. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Cameron English

I cover public health, nutrition and science education for PolicyMic. I also write critical thinking exercises for high school science textbooks. My previous work includes freelance writing and editing for Science 2.0. I've never been paid by Monsanto for my opinions, though that would be awesome.

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