Tim Sandefur and I don’t agree about the proper role of government when it comes to funding scientific research. He fairly strongly believes that there are many reasons why it’s wrong for the government to fund scientific research. Tim’s provided a number of reasons to support his belief, and I agreed to use my blog as a platform to make my own case for the involvement of government in science.
In the abstract, many of the reasons that the government should not be involved in funding research sound fairly compelling. Unfortunately, those arguments were made on the internet. At the end of the day, the medium undercut the message.
We use research to facilitate new kinds of commerce, and to improve everyone’s day to day lives. It’s a part of our infrastructure, every bit as much as roads and bridges are. Providing for infrastructure of various sorts has been considered to be one of the functions of the government for centuries (if not longer), and for good reason:
The third and last duty of the sovereign or commonwealth is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it therefore cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations
There are different kinds of research that fall into the broad category outlined above for different reasons.
Some of the research that the government funds – including a lot of basic biomedical work – falls into the category of high-risk, high-gain research. Many, if not most, of the projects funded will ultimately turn out to have no practical, profitable application, some will turn out to be hugely beneficial, and there’s no real way to know ahead of time which will be which. Unless you have the ability to fund a large number of projects, it’s probably going to be to your disadvantage to get involved in funding this sort of thing. In this case, government funding lets us spread out the risks. When the basic research reaches a point where very promising areas are identified, the risks decrease enough that it becomes reasonable for private firms to step in – and they frequently do. Spreading out the risk stimulates private commerce and it reduces the time that it takes to develop things that will benefit large numbers of people.
Other research – including a lot of basic physics research – has no predictable commercial benefit. But that’s not the same as no possible commercial benefit. When we fund this sort of research, we reduce our ignorance about the universe we inhabit (and I think that alone is in the public interest), but we also often open up new lines of knowledge that lead to new advances in technology with enormous benefits down the line. I doubt that anyone could have predicted, at the time, the effect that the discovery of the electron would ultimately have on the world.
A third set of research – which includes some environmental research – may have, at least in the short term, a detrimental effect on commerce, but still be very much in the public interest. Few companies find researching the possible long-term effects their activities might have on their surroundings and neighbors to be commercially beneficial. But that doesn’t mean that such research is not in the overall public interest. As Oliver Wendell Holmes once put it, the right to swing a fist ends where the other man’s nose begins. Research into these areas is how we, the people, figure out just where our nose begins.
There’s little doubt that our current system of government is – at best – an imperfect means for dealing with funding scientific research. Ultimately, a government of the people, by the people, for the people, involves people. And people are human beings, with all of the attendant foibles and imperfections that go along with membership in Homo sapiens. To paraphrase Churchill, government’s the worst way to fund basic scientific research – except for everything else we’ve tried. That’s not a very idealistic way to look at things, but when it comes to things like this I’m not much of an idealist.