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.