Government Funding and Nobel Prizes

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Last March (I've been meaning to blog this for while), Cato Institute bioethicist Sigrid Fry-Revere wrote an article in Genetic Engineering News that looked at the relationship between federal government funding and Nobel Prizes in Medicine. Her interesting conclusion:

Some argue that research and development is so expensive and risky that important research would go undone without government support. Nobel Prize Laureates represent the cutting edge of scientific innovation; they are the most notable group of successful research risk takers.

Of the 186 Nobel winners in Medicine since 1901, 99 did their prize-winning research with the support of U.S. research institutions. Of those, only five did their work at NIH and fewer than one-third did their work while affiliated with public institutions.

The other two-thirds were affiliated with private institutions and were primarily supported through private funds. While only a cursory analysis, the evidence seems clear that private investors, whether entrepreneurial or philanthropic, are much better at identifying truly innovative research than government institutions are.

Government funding is not just extra funding that wouldn't exist otherwise; look at what happened with in vitro fertilization research, for example. For years, advocates spent millions of dollars trying to convince Congress to support in vitro fertilization research. They claimed that without funding the U.S. would suffer a brain drain and infertile Americans would have to seek treatment abroad. While a divisive debate over the ethical merits of test-tube babies raged, some scientists quietly pursued their research privately.

Even after decades of lobbying, the federal government never funded any IVF research, and today the U.S. has the largest IVF industry in the world. Human IVF is a $3 billion a year industry, human reproductive technologies as a whole is a $6.5 billion a year industry, and the total assisted reproduction industry, including animal husbandry, is close to a $16 billion a year industry. All that without any federal funding.

A second story is still in the making. Just last November, Missouri voters passed a constitutional amendment creating a safe haven for embryonic stem cell researchers, but included no public funding for the work. Within days, the Stowers Institute for Medical Research unleashed its $2 billion bank roll and an international team of stem cell researchers it had assembled in anticipation of the amendment's passage. Remember California, where the $3 billion voters authorized to be spent over 10 years on stem cell research is still unavailable three years later? Well, in Missouri, the Stowers Institute put $2 billion in private funding to work within days.

It's understandable that researchers are tempted by the prospect of easy money from government sources, but as the record shows, getting government funding is not worth the effort. Only private funding lets researchers do what they need to and leads to truly reliable results.

Something to ponder. Whole article here

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  1. The solution to this is obvious. The goevernment needs to start funding more research. They need to start handing out grants like halloween candy to anyone who can put together a lab coat and pocket protector ensemble.

    By the law of averages, they should hit a Nobel winner here and there.

  2. It’s understandable that researchers are tempted by the prospect of easy money from government sources, but as the record shows, getting government funding is not worth the effort.

    No, *getting* government funding is almost always worth the effort. Footing the bill for government funding, on the other hand, not so much.

  3. I would be interested to know how Mr Bailey justifies his steadfast stance for funding embryonic stem cell research in response to this article.

    Obviously, I’m opposed to such research for other reasons, but I would think the libertarian position would be to oppose public funding regardless of the research’s moral status.

  4. I generally have sympathy for this type of position, but think that libertarians go too far in denying a governmental role in research.

    Firstly, I would note that medicine is one of the more applied areas of science (at least historically, although much molecular bio now comes under NIH/’medicine’ I guess).

    More importantly, for Ron (or others), I have a question: Do you seriously think we would have computers/internet/telecom-satellites/etc., in anything approaching their modern ubiquity, without the Cold War?

    This was essentially a way that ‘joe public’ was convinced to give a large amount of $ to
    basic research. Throwing gobs of money at research, DoD (and DARPA) found a small % of long-term investments which paid off bigtime. These breakthrough technologies then paved the way for refinement by private firms. Since applied industrial research will not typically invest in long-term basic research—which has only uncertain and high risk eventual applied payoffs—I find it hard to see how all breakthrough research can be privatized.

    Disclosure, I am a scientist in the US, hoping to get public funding 🙂

    However I am also a (moderate, small-l) libertarian who is just skeptical of full privatization in this arena …

  5. Like other states I’ve lived in, the big cities large populations tend to dominate state politics and obscure the nature of the rest of the state. But never has the disparity been greater than I’ve experienced here in MO. Out here in Mid Miz, you can find bumper stickers (on the back of pick-up with those little boat propellers handing off the trailer hitch) reading “THE BIBLE SAYS Mary was with child, not tissue”

  6. Aaaaah! I messed up my tags!

    It should have read:
    Matt W – the answer to your question is that yes, things would be ubiquitous even without the Cold War.

    Take computer networks. Ever hear of Fidonet? Remember Compuserve and Compunet?

    The Internet became dominant because it was subsidized by the government, and thus provided lower TCO for its adopters. However, it was not the only game in town, and in the absence of government support, the needs it addresses would have been instead met by something else.

    All the technology that was produced due to government funded research is what is seen. The research that was not done due to money lost to taxes, the technologies that were not explored due to government hostility or government provided substitutes are what is not seen.

  7. One point that could skew this finding a bit: The Nobel committee has been giving up to three prizes in Medicine per year since 1901. But public funding for science only really ramped up in the 1950s, right? Also the NIH budget (which funds both researchers at the NIH and at US institutions who apply for NIH grants) has doubled in the past decade. Only a small proportion of biomedical scientists work at the NIH — and the Nobel committee is awarding a global prize, remember!

    So when considering the effect of public funding on Nobel prize-winning, it’s probably appropriate to take those things into account.

    Another point is that the Nobel is rarely given for recent work — it’s usually for work done 10, 20 or more years ago (after a few of the early prizes turned out to be duds, like treating syphilis with malaria).

  8. Actually it’s probably not fair to say that malaria therapy for neurosyphilis was a dud. Apparently it worked quite well. But it was quickly made obsolete by antibiotics.

  9. Also see this article:

    Government and Science: A Dangerous Liaison?

    We survey the relationship between government and science (concentrating on the situation in the U.S.). We discuss the theoretical rationale for government funding, showing that it is open to serious question – its model of science as market is highly suspect, and its implications for the remedial effects of intervention do not stand up to even casual empirical scrutiny. Calling attention to the nakedness of the standard economic rationale, however,

    and Science, Technology, and Government By Murray N. Rothbard

    We have seen that government subsidization or operation of (non-military research would distort the efficient allocation of resources of the free market economy. It would do more; as Sarnoff pointed out, government aid would inevitable mean “increased government control of the daily lives of all the people.” Secondly, government control would tragically bureaucratize science and cripple that spirit of free inquiry on which all scientific advance must rest: “government control of research would destroy the very qualities that enable researchers to make such an important contribution to society. For government control means that rigid lines would be set for research; and these lines may not meet changing requirements. Certainly industry is best qualified to define its own research needs. And the partnership between research and industry loses its meaning when government can dictate the subject and objective of research in any competitive system of private enterprise.[12]

    The myth has arisen that government research is made necessary by our technological age, because only planned, directed, large-scale “team” research can produce important inventions of develop them properly. The day of the individual or small-scale inventor is supposedly over and done with. And the strong inference is that government, as potentially the “largest-scale” operator, must play a leading role in even non-military scientific research. This common myth has been completely exploded by the researches of John Jewkes, David Sawers, and Richard Stillerman in their highly important recent work.

  10. The early internet was funded by governments in different ways, but there was never a government plan to build the internet, and many of the people who built were supposed to be doing other things. Tim Berners-Lee, for example, wanted a way for scientists at CERN to share documents, so he wrote the HTTP protocol. Private companies would NEVER have built an open system like the internet — their model was (and still is, in their fondest dreams) a series of “walled gardens” which is what AOL and Compuserve used to be like. The internet was not the only game in town — it was just much, much better to use the open system than the others.

  11. Of the 186 Nobel winners in Medicine since 1901, 99 did their prize-winning research with the support of U.S. research institutions. Of those, only five did their work at NIH and fewer than one-third did their work while affiliated with public institutions.

    Not clear from this what qualifies as “affiliated with public instiutions”. Does this include extramural funding from NIH (which is a much bigger fraction–90% I think–of NIH’s budget than intramural)?

    This analysis also neglects completely the contribution of previous (and possibly publicly funded) work on which the Nobel-prize winning stuff is based.

    I’m not saying a move towards privatization isn’t entirely justifiable on libertarian grounds, just that this argument isn’t a particularly compelling one as presented.

  12. So publicly supported research by the US is responsible for contributing to the work of more than 50% of the nobel prize winners (who are taken from a global pool of candidates).

    And this is an argument against public funding how?

    Even if you only give credit for the 1/3 that “did their work while affiliated with public institutions” that is a pretty good indication that public monies are contributing mightily to the “cutting edge of scientific innovation.”

    Or am I missing something obvious here?

  13. The easiest way to explain this is space exploration. The Space Race of the Cold War was an entirely proper function of government, because it was, bottom line, a military operation to counter on objectively identifiable military threat.

    Today, there is no such threat and no basis whatsoever to compel taxpayers to foot the bill for “neat-o” projects such as a Mars mission. “Wow” is simply not a public good — and neither is non-military scientific research that occasionally creates “wow.”

  14. It’s also worth pointing out that science PhD and postdoctoral training is funded (or at a minimum substantially subsidized) by the government, either directly through individual awards or training grants, or indirectly through research grants which include salaries for the people performing the research. Or more indirectly from the overhead off those grants that pays for the schools to have research facilities and programs in the first place.

    This is to say that research is not so neatly divided into “public” and “private” as we might like to believe.

  15. “The easiest way to explain this is space exploration”

    That was my point with ‘telecom satellites’ …
    I don’t contend the gubmint needs continual involvement. But I do think that satellites would have been much longer coming if not for the military paving the way …

  16. I don’t contend the gubmint needs continual involvement. But I do think that satellites would have been much longer coming if not for the military paving the way …

    I have to agree. We’d still be waiting for GPS if it were not DOD funded. That said, would it be that great of a loss?

  17. Of the 186 Nobel winners in Medicine since 1901, 99 did their prize-winning research with the support of U.S. research institutions. Of those, only five did their work at NIH and fewer than one-third did their work while affiliated with public institutions.

    The other two-thirds were affiliated with private institutions and were primarily supported through private funds.

    I strongly suspect that this is basically untrue.

    If these were standard-model biomedical researchers at private universities, then the research was primarily supported through NIH/ NSF grants. The universities as a whole may have huge endowments from private sources and may be funded on primarily private funds. But the biomedical research runs on huge NIH grants.

    Maybe a couple fo the researchers happened to be supported primarily through foundation grants. But to say that *all 66* or so of the Nobelists at private universities also happened to be funded in a massively atypical way is implausible on its face.

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