Terence Kealey, a clinical biochemist at a private university (of Buckingham), wrote the lead essay for the new issue of the libertarian CATO Institute's magazine,
The Case against Public Science (CATO Unbound)His text is deeply provocative yet insightful but ultimately wrong at many levels. While I have enough libertarian DNA in my blood so that I can imagine a better, more efficient world in which there is no public funding of science, I am also conservative enough to appreciate that the complete abolition of the public funding of science would represent a dramatic revolution and I am against such revolutions unless their positive impact is supported by really solid arguments.
In his interesting essay, Kealey overlooks many important things and makes implausible statements about others. So let's start to ask: Why is the taxpayer paying for the science?
Kealey sketches the arguments rather nicely. It is being said that scientific research brings benefits to the whole society but the discoveries are being almost instantly copied and used by everyone else – the ideas may be (and should be) easily "stolen" – which is why individual sponsors wouldn't be motivated to pay for the research and the governments should overtake and play their role instead.
He traces the history of the public funding of science to 1605 when Francis Bacon (GB) investigated why Spain was the dominant superpower at that time. He concluded that they took the wealth from the American colonies and they were discovered thanks to the scientific research which is why nations should pay for the scientific research if they want to beat Spain (which is not so hard today – apologies to Spaniards who didn't want to be announced the bad news that the 17th century has ended).
The need for the basic research is also discussed in the context of the Second World War when nuclear bombs and other devices had to be developed. Kealey later suggests that there was no link between the "great powers" status of countries and the countries' support for research and development. I beg to differ. Spain was dominant 4 centuries ago and this started his story. When Britain dominated sometime in the 19th century or so, it was also the headquarters of science (think about electromagnetism). Germany's rise to prominence in the early 20th century (1920s and 1930s, regardless of the regime) was accompanied by its leadership in science (it's no accident that the papers that established relativity and quanta were mostly written in German). And the birth of the new only superpower, the U.S., after the war also meant that the U.S. became the leader in sciences. Sometimes it's subtle to determine what is the cause and what is the consequence but the overall power status of nations has always been tightly linked to their visibility in the sciences.
Kealey finally rejects the arguments in favor of the public funding of science for two main reasons: the empirical data don't show that there is any correlation between the GDP growth and the expenditures for the scientific research; and because the fundamental assumption of the pro-public-science arguments, "copying is easy", is wrong.
Both of these reasons he uses suffer from serious flaws. Concerning the first argument, the GDP indeed shows no high-frequency correlation with the scientific expenditures and it shouldn't, for two main reasons: First, the economic impact of the research, especially basic research, arrives with a significant delay. The more basic research we consider, the longer delay we should generally expect. Some basic research isn't done for profit at all. Second, the scientific discoveries are usually spread all over the world so even whole nations that funded the science usually get no advantage that would go above the benefits shared by everyone. The nations that make the discoveries – which quickly belong to everyone – earn the prestige and other things.
Concerning the second argument, copying may be hard and expensive (every kind of work has to be paid for, not only the most spectacular work!) but the work needed to copy is clearly less valuable than the original discovery because it does depend on the original discovery. Moreover, if it were easier to discover things than to copy them, companies wouldn't ever be copying. ;-) Kealey points out that companies pay lots of money for copying but the question isn't whether the copying costs a lot but whether its value exceeds the value of the original discovery and the answer is clearly No.
But let me present my own case in favor of the public funding for science.
First, let me say that all sensible people should agree that the funding shouldn't be "arbitrarily high" and it should follow some meritocratic rules because otherwise lots of money may be wasted – the sticker "science" simply can't prevent money from being wasted. So some competition for funds is desirable and I would even say that to a large extent, it exists in the real world. Also, people should sometimes try to quantify the value of their individual findings, papers, and so on – so that the sum is equal to their salary. Imagine that you're paid just for papers and you write 5 papers in 5 years. So the value of each paper seems to be one times the annual salary. I think that if many people looked at such average papers, they would be shocked what a small pile of garbage may often cost $100,000 or so.
But these are obvious comments. For the distribution of the resources to be meaningful, there has to be an internal competition and meritocracy. Even internally, the research industry has to emulate the rules of capitalism. This is the uncontroversial part of the story, I think.
The controversial part of the story is whether the basic research community, if I unify and call it in this way, should be getting finances from the public. Three weeks ago, a friend of mine in Southern Bohemia told me the fundamental reason why scientists should be paid (and why he thinks that the salaries should be much higher than what I think):
The society should bribe the scientists so that their discoveries are more likely to be used to benefit the society and not against it.In my opinion, this is the most natural perspective one should take to understand what's going on. You don't need to expect that average citizens will quantify and enforce some perfect justice, rewards for scientists who wouldn't be rewarded otherwise, and so on. They may be assumed to act in the usual egotist way. The reason why citizens as a group pay money to the scientists is simply to possess the results, at least partially, and to expect the scientists to feel loyal and to use the results so that the other citizens aren't harmed.
If you analyze the current situation, you will see that it's distorted relatively to a laissez faire utopia. But it's distorted in several ways and the other side of the coin is completely overlooked by Kealey.
So it's true that scientists – and sometimes unproductive scientists – are getting lots of money from the taxpayer which makes them richer than what they would otherwise be (and this also creates the annoying class of "average and subpar also scientists" who are almost entirely left-wing). But the other observation is that no scientists are "owning" or controlling the human society even though they possibly could.
Let me mention an oversimplified, not quite realistic, but not quite impossible example. The Manhattan Project could have been paid by a wealthy friend of the top physicists. They could have used it against the American nation and other nations and turn them into slaves of this group that is in possession of the nuclear weapons. The most disobedient cities or towns would be detonated away every Monday.
Yes, this story may sound like Humanist Cafe's sick dream about the Gulf of Arkansas and other "denier states" conquered by the sea level rise except that my story could have happened. Science often gives one some rather amazing powers that are sometimes expected and sometimes unexpected (I wish you lots of faith that your humble correspondent hasn't developed any string M-bomb). The development of the nuclear weapons could have been advancing in pretty much the same way as it did in the real world but if the funding flows were different, the bomb could have been used very differently, too.
That's one simple reason why ordinary citizens, even though who don't care about the scientific truth at all, contribute to the research. It's an insurance that they will be able to impose the society's laws saying that new potential discoveries won't be used against the citizens etc. The citizens are a part of the story – they have paid for some of the research – so they can also "punish" their employees, the scientists, and so on.
The idea of Richard Feynman and his friends who enslave the American nation may look extreme or unfair to you but it could have been them who decides what the word "justice" means so your opinions and feelings could have very well been irrelevant. I could say that many other "progressive" changes in our society, including the abolition of slavery, were anti-free-market in a sense because the owners had to abandon some powers that they used to enjoy. Today, we like to think that the slaveowners have never "owned" the slaves except that they did – and they could physically prove their ownership in any way you ask – and the liberation of the slaves was therefore a confiscation or nationalization much like many other cases of it.
Finally, as always, champions of pure science such as myself should emphasize that the most basic research isn't being pursued for economic profit, not even in the very long run, but due to the passion for the truth. People just want to understand how the Universe works. It's popular among the extreme free-market advocates to say that such a thing – research that seems almost obviously free of practical implications – shouldn't be funded at all.
But take it pragmatically. If the very basic research takes about 1% of the GDP, it doesn't mean that every citizen is eager to spend about 1% of her income to fund science. When it comes to the taxation, such rules don't hold in the funding of science and they don't hold for any other entries in the budget, either. It's more realistic to say that about 10% of the society is willing to pay 10% of their income for pure research. The remaining 90% would prefer to pay for other things and the tax system just averages all these amounts over whole nations.
Think about it. I am saying that 10% of the society finds it appropriate for 10% of the GDP – and their own income – to be paid for the scientific research. If you had 30 classmates, I am saying that about 3 people in your class attribute this "10% relevance" to the basic scientific research. Think about various classes you have attended and you will probably agree that it's a very realistic estimate.
Some of the people who don't want any money to be paid to the scientific research simply belong to the "aggressive part of the 90%" that doesn't want to admit that some people have different preferences than themselves. If you changed the redistribution of the tax revenue so that everyone would decide where his money goes, you would ultimately see 1% or so going to basic science, anyway. It's the percentage that the society as a whole finds reasonable and so do I, we could say. If your ideas about the "right funding for science" is much lower than 1%, for example zero, that's fine but you and your soulmates are not the only people in the society. Moreover, the very same complaint could be raised against every other item in the government's budget – warfare and law enforcement, construction of infrastructure, education, unemployment support, anything else.
These are some of the reasons why I am no fan of the utopias such as "abolish all public funding for science". While it's clear that the existing system of the funding of research is extremely far from the principles of the free markets, the society would reorganize itself in such a way that the net funding would be roughly similar even in a free-market-based setup. Moreover, I believe that the general "abolish all public funding for science" is driven by some general negative sentiments against scientists and science itself and not by solid free-market-based or economic arguments. This observation is also supported by the fact that Kealey and his soulmates overlook the powers that the discoverers have given up even though they didn't need to do so.
Via Preposterous Universe
Incidentally, Sean Carroll and Matt Strassler primarily discuss a smaller topic, the stopped NSF funding for political science. I think it's right to stop it; it's not a science foundation's business to fund political science which isn't really a science. It should only fund research that may be agreed to be impartial in the scientific sense and political science just isn't an example. It would be great if the funding for various professional women's and professional blacks' departments could be slashed, too.