Stem Cells and Libertarianism in an Unlibertarian World

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In a post back at my own site this morning, I argued (in reply to Andrew Sullivan and John Tierney) that there are good reasons for libertarians to oppose a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research even if we'd generally prefer private funding of science. Among other things, I argued:

One of the problems here is that if you look at the National Institutes of Health FAQ of stem cell funding, you find this (emphasis mine):

No federal funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to support research on human embryonic stem cell lines that do not meet the criteria established by President Bush on August 9, 2001.

Now, NIH guidelines go on to allow a sort of mini-exception: Federal funding for "facilities and administrative costs" won't necessarily bar an institution from doing any embryonic stem-cell research, provided the grant recipients are willing to jump through various accounting hoops. But nothing charged as a direct cost can be used to "subsidize" non-allowed research. As I read it, that means any kind of machinery or equipment acquired as part of a directly-funded project can't later (or simultaneously, for that matter) be used for embryonic research outside those few approved lines. That leaves a lot of labs with the choice between eschewing federal funds altogether, finding separate funding to buy a lot of redundant equipment, or focusing on research programs the feds like. Now, maybe embryonic research is sufficiently promising that there are plenty of places willing to do one of the first two. But larger labs with lots of resources, especially in the academic world, are likely to find themselves pushed toward option three.
So the problem isn't just that the ban results in less direct funding for embryonic research that can be made up easily enough elsewhere, it's that it warps the decisions of institutions by making the marginal cost of pursuing embryonic research much higher than some alternative (if less promising) project, even if both are directly funded from a private source, because the other project isn't going to require that you purchase a bunch of new equipment to avoid repurposing stuff from other projects. The distorting effect goes well beyond having to find alternative funding for specific research. So given that we're going to have some federal funding for scientific research, I think we should at least insist it not distort the ordinary developement of research any more than necessary.

Well, I just got an e-mail from a scientist who, owing to his own ties to the government, prefers to remain nameless. He says:

Your analysis of the effect of restictions of federal funds on labs that might do stem cell research is spot-on. Academic labs get built up over time through a variety of funding sources: startup money awarded to new faculty (which may come from private, state, or federal resources), contract work, and grants. It's understood (even if not explicitly acknowledged by the NIH) that durable goods (everything from equipment down to pipettors and glassware) are going to be around beyond the funding period of the grant on which they were purchased, that some grant money will be used as "seed money" to collect preliminary data for subsequent grant submissions, and that multiple projects are usually going on in a lab and that no one "dedicates" equipment for one project only (unless necessitated due to technical requirements such as dedicated equipment for RNA work).

As such, the idea that federal money cannot directly or indirectly go to support a particular line of inquiry is not only onerous–it's completely unrealistic. This is the biggest problem I see with the current policy.

I suspect that this complication is getting little airplay for several reasons:

1) The policy makers are completely out of touch with how labs operate.
2) The NIH doesn't want to open this can of worms, for fear that congress might come back and demand greater accountability for where NIH money goes, and the NIH recognizes what a burden that would place on both it and researchers.
3) As a researcher working on an NIH grant, I certainly wouldn't want that to happen, either.

NEXT: Curb Your Enthusiasm—Unless You Want to Be Charged With a Felony

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  1. Should Reason advocate in favor of government funding (directly or indirectly) of science?

    In the case of space travel, which takes bazillions of dollars and gignormous infrastructure that might be just too big for any one company (other than Boeing and other demi-governmental companies), then NO WAY.

    In the case of stem cells, where research can go on in individual labs, done by small groups of scientists, the HELL YEAH.

    Why the fuck does reason even try anymore?!?

  2. I view it more of an issue of consistency. If you’re having government funding of science at all, why draw the line at embryonic stem cells?

  3. The entanglement between private industry and the government has long been an obstacle to the goal of a smaller government and freedom generally, precisely because it is so hard to pry apart.

    Now that we finally have a concrete example how many strings can come attached to federal money and the problems that can cause — something that can finally get scientists and industry to think, hmm, maybe we should look elsewhere for funding and maybe even build up our own institutional framework for that so we won’t need the government at all — Reason is saying, nahh, you guys should keep on accepting federal money.

    Oh, splendid …

  4. Does anyone consider seriously the possibility that the prohibition on federal funding of embryonic stem cell work will be used as precedent for prohibiting gov’t spending on other methods or objects of research that offend particular interests, leading to a progressive disentanglement of gov’t from science?

  5. We’re already dropping taxpayer dollars on federal funding of science.
    Instead of spending it on junk science about how weed will make you go crazy why not at least try to save some lives and cure some diseases? And if it pisses off evangelical christians, well as borat would say, NIIIICEE!

  6. I agree with you Random Grouch. However, as someone who works in science, the research dude is right. As it stands right now, there’s too much federal money in academic science to make the stem cell research ban workable. Even if you magically cut off all government funding today, the way the rules are written, some lab might get put in the paddywagon because the glassware or some automatic pipettes from 15 years ago were on a federal grant. Considering that completely severing ties would not only necessitate find $83 billion a year to replace in funding, but somehow replacing every single bit of lab equipment in existence in the US with private money just to be able to fully cut all ties, the rules just aren’t feasible, flat out.

  7. Out of all of the abuses, mismanagement, stupidity, greed, and downright jackfucked moronitude doled out by the federal government, I have to say that I find funding of scientific research to be about the least offensive on an exceedingly long list of grievances.

  8. mediageek – gotta agree with you there. Although I’ve admitted to some of my more left-leaning friends that I’d be willing to compromise a bit on my libertarian utopia.

    I do have a friend who is trying to get his doctorate in archaeology…and from what I’ve seen, the NSF doesn’t simply throw it’s money around. Actually, he was lamenting one time about how many hoops he had to jump through, and I told him that I was glad they made him work for it. 🙂

  9. In response:

    “And if it pisses off evangelical christians, well as borat would say, NIIIICEE!”

    Good to see that you’ve got your priorities in order, Bonk. Keep on thinking those deep thoughts.

    Todd, Mediageek — No, nobody can magically cut off the government funding and, yes, the money in question could certainly be put to worse use. Aren’t both those facts always the case? It’s not like you, I or anybody else on this message board can write the rules.

    The question is whether we should approve of this and say it is okay. I’ve made my case for why not. You guys say, well, we should make an exception in this case. Fine. But don’t pretend you’re doing any other than compromising.

  10. Science funding is one of the areas that I part ways with the libertarian ideal. While I can entertain and even buy into the argument of purely private science research if we were to start over and build from the ground up, I think the cost to move to that ideal at would outweigh the benefit over the current system.

    That said, I was disappointed (but not surprised) with the veto. I suppose the best route for the NIH crowd for now is consolidation. Setting up a shared and devoted clean lab (all new, separate supplies and equipment) with shared funds will work for some of the better funded researchers who can actually play well with others. Other than that it’s obsfucation of records and hope you don’t get caught.

  11. You must be joking…

    Rip the band-aid off fast.

    End public schools. Today.

    End federal funding of science. Right now.

    End the drug war. This instant.

    In essence, when you start making exceptions, you’re going to lose in the end. “Well, if you get funding for science, then we should get funding for schools..and if we get that”…you’re going to get logrolled into a communist state.

  12. Not joking AR, though I don’t find the argument that because one thing is funded, another must be as well. In fact, there’s a number of govt funded programs that I think could be ripped down and left to the private sector, and the short term cost would be worth the long term benefit.

    Science research is not one of these. It’s working rather well as is, and the private sector research has unfortunately grown around it. I’ve sat and weighed scenarios for how it could be done to a long term benefit, but that added benefit never outweighs the cost. If you’ve got a how to that’s a bit more expansive than “rip the band-aid off,” I’m open to persuasion.

  13. Grant immediate immunity to everyone who has federal money right now; you can use the federal money however you want, but you’ll get no more of it. It’s already spent anyway.

    It’s time for the birds to leave the nest.

    Regardless, I really don’t give a rip if it plunges us into the Stone Ages (which it will not!); the continued denial of liberty is never something to be “gradually” withered away; what if we were gradual with the slaves, because the South would’ve suffered? TOO DAMN BAD! It was their own fault, and it’s our own fault. If we have to suffer the consequences to regain liberty lost, that’s what has to be done.

  14. And if we have to lose more liberty to gain liberties lost, is it worth it?

  15. And just how would we be losing liberty? We never had the “right” to state-funded science. All of the same arguments that the “let’s make an exception for this!” crowd could be applied to public schools. Imagine if we ended public schools, right now. Just shut the doors. In the short term, we would suffer, probably greatly. Is it worth it?

    To end man’s enslavement to the State, for goals it deems worthy?

    Yes.

  16. Ayn_Randian, no reasonable person would expect the populace to support such instant changes. The shrill cry of the anarchist just makes the more moderate libertarians seem less radical. Which is cool if that’s the role you want to play… but don’t expect anyone to take you serious.

  17. I’m no anarchist, and if people don’t take liberty seriously, then they get the government they deserve.

    Sorry if I won’t compromise my principles to make them more “marketable”.

  18. “End federal funding of science. Right now.”

    Well, that’s a lovely thought, but since it’s not happening in the next couple of years, can the rest of us consider which of the viable options is going to be less destructive between now and The Revolution while you work on figuring out how to get it started?

  19. Ayn_Randian: I agree with you on principle. While there would be a LOT of bleating from academic types about the compromise of taking that tained corporate money (and somehow convince the university system in this country that the world will NOT end because big pharma is funding research), getting academic science off the government teat is a good thing for all parties involved. The problem is even if you were to do that tomorrow, the law regarding federal restrictions against cloning would still be in effect! The best you could reasonably hope for is to somehow grandfather in all equipment purchased with federal money in a one-shot deal, and pray that universities throughout the country did an excellent job of inventory, AND the fundies don’t start splitting hairs. Simply put…good luck.

  20. Todd,

    It’s not just the bleating of the cut off academics that would result, it’s the fact even the private industry research would then grind to a crawl. While I’m sure that they’d get adjusted to doing all of their own basic research after a while, there would be a rather considerable braindrain in the interim. Even should the rate of discovery ever return to it’s current pace, the cost just to get there would be huge in the depletion of scientific and medical training in this country.

    Perhaps, as AR argues, the cost would be worth it to release ourselves from this particular portion of slavery, but that’s not a hill I’d make a stand on. I’ve given considerable thought to the cost benefit analysis here, and I remain unconvinced that even the potential long-term benefits would be enough to outweigh the inevitable short and mid-term costs. I’m open to a persuasive argument otherwise, but I’ve yet to come across it and ideological purity alone doesn’t cut it for me.

    But then again, I’m just a “libertarian” who might not be trusted to properly look out for my own reasoned long-term self-interest. If only a Libertarian minimalist government would take power and do it for me.

  21. Out of all of the abuses, mismanagement, stupidity, greed, and downright jackfucked moronitude doled out by the federal government, I have to say that I find [insert thing that is not offensive to me as a taxpayer] to be about the least offensive on an exceedingly long list of grievances.

  22. Rich Ard,

    I agree with the sentiment you express. Invoking emotion or offensiveness doesn’t do much for an argument for a govt funded project as it is a subjective value. Economics carries a bit more objectivity.

  23. Sorry if I won’t compromise my principles to make them more “marketable”.

    Oscar Wilde once wrote, “I like people better than principles, and people without principles better than anything.”.

    And after a couple of decades hanging around libertarians, I now know *why* he wrote that.

  24. 1) The policy makers are completely out of touch with how labs operate.

    and publicly funded researchers are completely out of touch with how publicly funded research kills privately funded research, distorts and politisizes science and makes us all poorer.

    If we can foster a privately funded industry with privatly funded stem cell research, even if it is becouse christ lover Bush loves the unborn then so be it.

    I would rather government wasted the research money then spoil an area of research best suited for private funds.

  25. 3) As a researcher working on an NIH grant, I certainly wouldn’t want that to happen, either.

    “Dear Sirs, please stop my assistance since I got a job begging in October.”

  26. between now and The Revolution while you work on figuring out how to get it started?

    I’ll get it started once you and others stop naysaying it. Once you cease giving moral sanction by showing willingness to compromise.

    Rich Ard, thank you, that was the point I was trying to make.

  27. It is a fallacy to presume that liberty lost through incrementalism can only be regained through revolution. What we should have learned is that incrementalism works. Advocating revolution makes you look like a kook to the average joe, and if you don’t care what he thinks, you are backing yourself into the screaming, ranting ineffectual corner libertarians find themselves living in.

    Of all the ills in the world, it is hard to get incensed over research grants. It isn’t as though we would get the money back if we cut it from the budget. It would be spent on something less productive. The libertarian approach should be to introduce idea markets or some such as methods of allocating research money. Let’s, egad, demonstrate to people that our ideas add value instead of requiring us to return to the Stone Age.

  28. I’ll get it started once you and others stop naysaying it. Once you cease giving moral sanction by showing willingness to compromise.

    Ayn Randian:

    Until such time as you engage in a bombing campaign against laboratories participating in gov’t-funded research, I will find myself completely unpersuaded by your rote denunciations of other libertarians’ priorities. The fact that you’re, presumably, still walking free and not jailed for actions undertaken in the name of Saint Ayn shows that EVEN YOU have decided to pick and choose which battles are worth fighting in an un-libertarian world.

  29. Wow, look at all you very-well-educated folks getting all huffy when it’s your ox being gored. You sound like self-interested constituents! Big Science (in the national lab-university complex, very much in structure and history similar to the military-industrial complex) is just another expensive bureaucracy that distorts individual decisions and priorities… just like Great Society welfare payments incentivized individual decisions and priorities.

    I had a few years of research assistantship while in grad school (the first time around); I’ve been involved in seed research for NSF grants. Frankly, if you can say society “needs” to pay for knowlege PhD production, you can equivalently say society “needs” to make cash transfer payments so people don’t starve… can go to the hospital… or any number of any other interdictions in the realm of visceral human pain. Let’s not fool ourselves that the hoops are any better or fundamentally any different than HSS programs. At least EITC is less of a distortion than most.

    Ayn Randian and Rich Ard, you’re right here.

  30. “It is a fallacy to presume that liberty lost through incrementalism can only be regained through revolution. What we should have learned is that incrementalism works.”

    Yeah!

    “Of all the ills in the world, it is hard to get incensed over research grants. It isn’t as though we would get the money back if we cut it from the budget. It would be spent on something less productive. The libertarian approach should be to introduce idea markets or some such as methods of allocating research money.”

    Did the same person write both paragraphs?

  31. “In essence, when you start making exceptions, you’re going to lose in the end. “

    Right. Because the world of politics, as it currently exists, isn’t based on compromise and pragmatism.

    Look, it’s all well and good to adhere to pure ideology, but where has that gotten anyone who’s arguably pro-liberty?

    Sorry, but the only thing that pure ideological adherence gets you is a table in the corner of a coffee shop, alone, where you sit, smoking cloves, and muttering to yourself about how you’re the only one adhering to the true ideology.

    Awesome. Add $3.75 to that and you can get a latt?.

  32. Remember boys and girls, adherence to political principles gets you nowhere, you have to compromise and play the game. Don’t forget, though, that once you’ve accepted the rules of the game, you’ve already lost.

    I’ll still buy you that sixpack, though, mediageek.

  33. “Don’t forget, though, that once you’ve accepted the rules of the game, you’ve already lost.”

    I hope you’ll excuse my use of a crass comparison, but this is like bitching about having to woo a girl in order to have any chance at getting laid.

    Sure, the rules of the game may suck, but if you don’t play, you have no chance at all.

    I would like to point out that the anti gun rights movement was nearly successful in prohibiting the ownership of many privately-held firearms in the mid 1990’s.

    They didn’t get there by coming right out and saying that they wanted to ban guns outright. They got there one small step at a time. By compromising their ideals temporarily in order to take a baby step today, but keeping their eye on their ultimate goal of banning certain types of guns and registering whatever was left over.

    Until the gun rights movement learned this lesson, they were getting beat down left and right.

    But then something started to happen, incrementally the gun rights people started to fight back with the same methods. Instead of arguing that everyone should be able to openly carry a Tavor down the street, they argued that citizens with a clean record should be able to carry a concealed pistol.

    Is it a compromise? Yeah. But I’d rather live in a nation where a majority of the states now have shall-issue concealed carry, even if it means taking a class and filling out paperwork, than to live in one where a majority of states ban the practice for everyone but cops.

    There’s even evidence that this incremental method is leading to the way things ought to be. A couple of years ago, Vermont was the only state that didn’t require a permit to carry. Now Alaska has done away with it’s permitting system, and a couple of other states are considering going the same route.

    I simply don’t understand how you can get a bug up your ass about federal spending on science, when there are far more egregious things to rail against. It’s hard to get people to listen to a legitimate plan to curtail or do away with the DEA if you’re also railing against science funding.

    Why? Because it’s a non-issue to most people, and the only ones who are going to agree with you are other idealogues who’s calcified stances keep them from ever having a shot at influencing things.

    My biggest problem with the libertarian movement is that for every actual person who’s willing to engage in the give-and-take of the political process, there seems to be about fifteen others who’d rather jump up on the cross.

  34. there seems to be about fifteen others who’d rather jump up on the cross.

    Or, take up arms and declare that man’s rights are inviolate and “unalienable”…hmmm, there seems to be a group of people who tried the political process, got tired of it and did that very thing.

    It escapes me.

  35. there seems to be about fifteen others who’d rather jump up on the cross.

    Or, take up arms and declare that man’s rights are inviolate and “unalienable”…hmmm, there seems to be a group of people who tried the political process, got tired of it and did that very thing.

    It escapes me.

  36. there seems to be about fifteen others who’d rather jump up on the cross.

    Or, take up arms and declare that man’s rights are inviolate and “unalienable”…hmmm, there seems to be a group of people who tried the political process, got tired of it and did that very thing.

    It escapes me.

  37. there seems to be about fifteen others who’d rather jump up on the cross.

    Or, take up arms and declare that man’s rights are inviolate and “unalienable”…hmmm, there seems to be a group of people who tried the political process, got tired of it and did that very thing.

    It escapes me.

  38. Yes, and I seem to recall that they only undertook that effort after exhausting every other avenue of redress.

  39. It seems to me that this argument doesn’t provide a good reason for libertarians to oppose the ban; it provides an even stronger argument for Bush’s veto. After all, if it poses such a problem for scientists who leech off the government teat (to mix metaphors in a particularly unappetizing way), then perhaps it will provide an incentive for them to seek more private funding generally.

    —–

    I do have a friend who is trying to get his doctorate in archaeology…and from what I’ve seen, the NSF doesn’t simply throw it’s money around.

    Right; it throws our money around.

    —–

    I simply don’t understand how you can get a bug up your ass about federal spending on science, when there are far more egregious things to rail against. It’s hard to get people to listen to a legitimate plan to curtail or do away with the DEA if you’re also railing against science funding.

    That’s is an argument against campaigning for slashing science funding. You’re right: if I’m going to lobby the public for libertarian policies, even incrementally, I wouldn’t start there. But that doesn’t apply in this situation, where no campaigning is needed.

  40. I simply don’t understand how you can get a bug up your ass about federal spending on science, when there are far more egregious things to rail against. It’s hard to get people to listen to a legitimate plan to curtail or do away with the DEA if you’re also railing against science funding.

    But you, mediageek, can’t get a bug up your ass about it because you think it’s neat and useful. Problem is, there are a few people who don’t, and it’s their money – and in case no-one’s heard it before, their labor – that’s at stake.

    What we should have learned is that incrementalism works. Advocating revolution makes you look like a kook to the average joe, and if you don’t care what he thinks, you are backing yourself into the screaming, ranting ineffectual corner libertarians find themselves living in.

    I agree with this wholeheartedly, though; I don’t think that federal dollars should be used for these purposes, but as mediageek illustrated above with conceal/carry permits, there are situations where incremental changes work. What strikes me as odd is the suggestion that Bush’s veto is something that we should be upset about – the threat of federal funding cuts in the manner presented might encourage more private investment.

  41. About the Government funding research my take is that

    a) Do not fund any applied research which has the likelihood of resulting in commercial value. Let private companies develop it for profit.

    b) Fund basic research and research whose commercial value is not apparent, nor will be in the foreseeable future, in the hope,as Lord Faraday said when asked what good was electricity for, “one day it might be taxable”.

    Why? Because without basic research there is no applied research. You have to spend many years in such Proxmire-awards activty as studying the eye colors of fruit flies before there is enough knowledge to talk about gene therapy and other commercial application of Genetics.

    So, while it is a shot in the dark, fund it, in the hope you hit pay dirt. But the moment it does, turn it over to private concerns and wash your hands off it.

  42. That leaves a lot of labs with the choice between eschewing federal funds altogether, finding separate funding to buy a lot of redundant equipment, or focusing on research programs the feds like.

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