The Questionable Authority

Should the State Pay for Science?

Timothy Sandefur and I recently wound up arguing the pros and cons of government funding for basic scientific research. We’ve decided to take our discussion from email to our blogs.

Tim is a libertarian, and it’s safe to say that he’s not the world’s largest fan of government funding for most things, including science. He just posted a detailed explanation of his position at his blog Freespace. I’ll be posting a response here sometime tomorrow.

If you’re convinced that it’s obviously good to have the government fund scientific research, I’d suggest that you go read Tim’s post.


  1. #1 Matt Springer
    February 9, 2009

    The first thing is not not take anything I say too seriously, because my paycheck mostly comes from government science funding.

    That said, even as ScienceBlogs’ resident conservative I think there’s a place for state science funding at some level. One of the things that most conservatives and many libertarians agree that the state should do is to maintain necessary infrastructure for which there’s no marginal market incentive. For instance, rural electrification. Some – though not all – basic science is like that. It usually pays for itself eventually in economic growth, but the startup cost is often too large for individual private enterprise to handle. That that reason I think there’s a place for science funding.

    Besides, it’s comparitively cheap. Social Security blows through the equivalent of NSF’s yearly funding every three days or so.

  2. #2 A
    February 9, 2009

    It seems that comments on Sandefur’s proposal to do away with science funding by the evil government are at, where my (too-lengthy) comment can be found at:

  3. #3 Troublesome Frog
    February 9, 2009

    As I see it, government funded research is a way of spreading the risk of research more broadly to reduce its risk premium. Pure research (as opposed to research for a particular product) has a high risk of being unprofitable. At least, any given research project is not extremely likely to be profitable.

    Taken as a whole, I suspect that all of those individual research projects have been a worthwhile investment, thanks to the success of a minority of projects that have turned out to be very valuable in retrospect. If that’s the case, government is funding a worthwhile endeavor whose constituent parts may be deemed to risky for smaller organizations or for-profit operations to do.


  4. #4 Mike
    February 9, 2009

    Utter tripe. Nonsense. There is no market incentive for real science research. None. How can you argue against complete nonsense, and so much of it? I couldn’t get a third of the way in before my head exploded. Does anyone take that nonsense seriously, even libertarians? Is the general public really that cut off from current science research?

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    February 10, 2009

    Do you think we can convince other governments, who invest a larger part of their GDP in scientific research than we do, to go along with stopping government funding?

  6. #6 Timothy Sandefur
    February 10, 2009

    I’ve posted responses to some of the comments, here. I will of course ignore mere insults and ad hominem.

  7. #7 Jason Woertink
    February 10, 2009

    Do we have a clear account for organizations like Bell Labs? As I recall they were private entities that did basic research and made many important discoveries. It seems like private industry is full of scientists who understand the importance of basic research but these days I think they would prefer to let the government do the work for free rather than do it themselves. As a general trend it seems that as more public money goes into basic research less private money goes in.

  8. #8 Ichthyic
    February 10, 2009

    Utter tripe. Nonsense. There is no market incentive for real science research. None. How can you argue against complete nonsense, and so much of it? I couldn’t get a third of the way in before my head exploded.

    seconded (though I did manage to muddle through all of it). If this is where Tim’s head is REALLY at these days, he needs a vacation.

    It’s poorly thought out rants like this from someone that should know better that end up being used as fuel for the fires that we saw just last week in the attempts to drastically cut science funding to begin with. That’s not to say that such rants are an a-priori CAUSE of funding reductions (they most certainly are not), but it’s obvious they don’t exactly help, either. Why provide even MORE irrational arguments to cut funding than are already being utilized?

    I’ve more and more begun to apply the old canard: “With friends like these…” when I think of some of the things Tim has posted over the last few years.


    one can only hope that the inane current libertarian thought memes are relatively isolated, but I fear they are becoming as ubiquitous as Ron Paul fans.

    It’s like these people have completely failed to recognize the past failures of applied libertarian ideals. I know history can be boring to some, but really, it does pay to at least spend a little time looking at the actual past application of your own proffered ideology.

  9. #9 william e emba
    February 10, 2009

    Bell Labs was private in a technical sense only. It was funded by the Bell System’s government granted monopoly on long distance. When AT&T was broken up, Bell Labs crashed and burned.

  10. #10 Jason Woertink
    February 10, 2009

    William, Was Bell required to do basic research as a requirement for their monopoly? My point is monopoly or not they were still a private profit seeking organization. And the argument goes that profit seeking entities will not fund basic research which Bell labs did seem to do.

    On a different point I do think that public funding of science has had the unintended consequence of distancing science and, ironically, the public. The system now rewards the scientists who are best are writing grant proposals and not those who are good at integrating with the public. If, hypothetically, scientists had to make money to pay for their research by selling books, DVDs, or encouraging donations then scientist who are good at speaking to the public would be rewarded. This also explains why religious organizations are generally better at selling their messages and ideas than science; their lack of public funding means that their survival depends upon being able to sell their ideas to the public.

  11. #11 Ichthyic
    February 10, 2009

    If, hypothetically, scientists had to make money to pay for their research by selling books, DVDs, or encouraging donations then scientist who are good at speaking to the public would be rewarded

    why not reward good communicators directly, by making teaching and lecturing positions better paid, instead of indirectly through the method you propose?

    Moreover, why shouldn’t the scientists who actually do good science be rewarded with consistent grant money, regardless of how well they are able to communicate their ideas to a lay public?

    one should not necessarily be linked to the other.

  12. #12 Jason Woertink
    February 10, 2009

    Ichthyic, I would consider the public directly funding a scientists efforts via DVDs, books or donations more direct than changing the pay scale for teaching and lecturing. I agree that better pay for teaching and lecturing would bring in better communicators. But why would colleges choose to pay more for those services? Currently professors bring in money via grants not lectures, perhaps if the university sold the lectures and were able to make money from it then they would have an incentive.

    Also I did not say that scientists who do good research should not be funded I am saying that the public funding as currently constructed does not reward public communication skills and even discourages public communication because it takes them out of the lab.

  13. #13 Ichthyic
    February 10, 2009

    But why would colleges choose to pay more for those services?

    um, you do realize that universities have to attract students as well as professors, right? Universities have to compete for students, and their revenues, and do indeed often advertise good lecturers.

    as much as my old alma mater, Berkeley, might have wanted to convert itself into a purely research institute, it was not to be. Still needed those pesky students to survive 😉

    While there is certainly an emphasis on bringing in regular grant money to the university (understandably so, and not just for the actual grant money itself, but for prestige reasons too), there is also an emphasis (if lesser in some cases) to encourage good teaching, again, if for no other reason than to increase the relative prestige of the Uni to attract more students.

    Most professors consider their communication service to be fulfilled by their actual teaching load (can you really think of a better way to communicate a complex idea than through an entire university course?). It is indeed a relatively new thing that there is now more encouragement for professors to become involved in helping to communicate their findings to legislators and the general public at large. Frankly, having been involved in doing just that with various non-profits over the years, my brief comments would be:

    one: most professors are simply too busy to concentrate on communicating their research outside of the classroom or lab setting, and I simply do not blame them for this. As such, that role should better fall to various intermediary agencies, like non-profit groups whose purpose it is to help educate the general public about general scientific ideas, or through the communications/education departments with a given University. For non-profits, organizations like NCSE come to mind, or as an example for more specific research, one of the ones I used to work with:

    two: funding for non-profits to do educational outreach is available, both through governmental and through other non-profit funding sources, but is entirely separate from that provided for research itself. IMO, this is a good thing.

    That said, I wholeheartedly agree that more funding for educational outreach would be a good thing. I just don’t think it fair to lean on the scientists themselves to provide public educational outreach beyond what they already do with teaching at the uni level. It’s nice if they have time, and I have gotten many to participate with various non-profs to either share their info with legislators, or with the general public. However, having “been there and done that”, I for one would not hold their feet to the fire.

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