Government Spending

The Failure of Centralized Scientific Planning

A review of Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money


Does government funding of scientific research speed technological progress and spur economic growth? It is a truism among academic researchers that federal funding is necessary for fundamental research and that such funding is perpetually inadequate. In his 1945 report to the President, Science: The Endless Frontier, director of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development Vannevar Bush argued that some areas of science "are likely to be cultivated inadequately if left without more support than will come from private sources." Given the economic and defense challenges faced by the United States after the Second World War, Bush claimed, "[W]e are entering a period when science needs and deserves increased support from public funds."

Bush did explicitly note that technological progress depended upon industry translating scientific discoveries into new therapies, products and services. "Industry will fully rise to the challenge of applying new knowledge to new products. The commercial incentive can be relied upon for that," wrote Bush. The problem, as he saw it, was that the profit motive was not strong enough to induce enough private investment in basic science. Part of the problem is that research results would be available to competitors, so a business could not profit sufficiently from its investment in basic research.

Now comes Terence Kealey to question these commonplaces in Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money. Kealey is a biochemist and vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, the only independent university in Britain. To some extent, Sex, Science and Profits recapitulates the arguments Kealey made in his 1996 book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research (favorably reviewed in reason in 1997). What is new is that Kealey applies the gimlet eye of evolutionary psychology to his delightful romp through the history of human technological progress.

As human bands of hunter-gatherers improved their hunting technologies and grew in numbers, prey animals and other foods became increasingly scarce. So hunger encouraged the invention of agriculture and domestication of some animals. The New Stone Age saw a burst of technological innovation as people began to specialize and to trade. As goods proliferated and trade expanded, merchants invented writing systems, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics, to keep track of grain, pots, sheep and goats, beer, spices, and cloth.

Kealey traces the fits and starts of technological progress through stagnant Bronze Age empires like Egypt and Assyria to the technologically innovative small merchant cultures such as the Phoenicians, Philistines, and Lydians that made crucial advances like the alphabet, ironworking, and coins. Technology stagnated under the Romans and surprisingly made headway during the Dark Ages which saw the invention of three-field crop rotation, the heavy plow and the horse collar which lifted food production by more than 40 percent. These inventions arose in areas of northern Europe where farmers sold food to city markets. This meant that they could specialize in growing food and obtain other goods they needed in trade from city dwellers. In the deep countryside where feudalism held sway, crop yields did not markedly improve for centuries. The period also saw the invention of windmills, trousers, butter, barrels, and buttons.

Then came the Renaissance in Italian merchant cities which invented double entry bookkeeping. This advance in accounting enabled enterprises to accumulate debts and credits in their own rights, making them entities separate from any individual. Italians also invented insurance to cover the risks of trading. The first stock exchange opened in Antwerp in 1460. Kealey then takes us to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution which again took off in small trading countries, especially the Netherlands and England. The common thread that he identifies is that technology takes off when individual and property rights are recognized.

Kealey shows in nearly every case the crucial inventions of the past two and half centuries were called forth by markets, not invented by scientists working from ivory towers. These include the steam engine, cotton gin, textile mills, railroad engines, the revolver, the electric motor, telegraph, telephone, incandescent light bulb, radio, the airplane—the list is nearly endless.

The story of the airplane is instructive. After the Spanish-American War, the federal government supplied a grant of $73,000 to the director of the Smithsonian Institution, Samuel Pierpont Langley to develop heavier-than-air craft. All six of Langley's prototypes crashed, the last one on October 7, 1903. Two months later, Ohio bicycle mechanics, Orville and Wilbur Wright, launched their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Their R&D budget? About $1,000.

But what about now? Governments are spending more than ever on scientific research. Isn't government-funding of basic research crucial to the development of new technologies? What about the Manhattan Project? Nuclear power? The Apollo moon-landings? The Internet? Kealey isn't claiming that government-funded research achieves no breakthroughs, but he is questioning if those breakthroughs are worth the cost. Surely government R&D funding must be helping to increase economic growth? That is the received wisdom argued centuries ago by Bacon, half a century ago by Bush, and is heard nearly every week at Congressional hearings today.

The issue is complicated, but what evidence is available is damning. In particular, Kealey cites a 2003 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, The Sources of Economic Growth, which finds "a marked positive effect of business-sector R&D, while the analysis could find no clear-cut relationship between public R&D activities and growth, at least in the short term." This finding mirrored a 2001 OECD working paper which showed that higher spending by industry on R&D correlates well with higher economic growth rates. In contrast to the academic truisms about the need for federal funding, the study found that "business-performed R&D…drives the positive association between total R&D intensity and output growth." The OECD researchers noted that publicly funded defense research crowded out private research, "while civilian public research is neutral with respect to business-performed R&D."

In other words, government funded civilian research didn't appear to hurt the private sector but there was not much evidence that it helped, at least in the short term. The report concluded, "Research and development (R&D) activities undertaken by the business sector seem to have high social returns, while no clear-cut relationship could be established between non-business-oriented R&D activities and growth." Economic growth associated with R&D was linked almost entirely to private sector research funding. The OECD report did allow that perhaps publicly funded research might eventually result in long-term technology spillovers, but that contention was hard to evaluate. The 2003 OECD study also noted, "Taken at face value they suggest publicly-performed R&D crowds out resources that could be alternatively used by the private sector, including private R&D."

A 1995 analysis done by American University economist Walter Parker also finds that government funding crowds out private research. "Once private research is explicitly controlled for, the direct effect of public research is weakly negative, as might be the case if public research has crowding-out effects which adversely affect private output growth," concludes Parker. Weakly negative? Government funding may retard technological progress? Is it possible that the funding for NASA has crowded out private space transport research and development? Or more currently, that private companies are not investing in carbon capture and sequestration research as a way to mitigate man-made global warming because they are waiting for the federal government to fund such research?

There is much more controversy and evidence to savor in Sex, Science and Profits, e.g., his argument that patents should be abolished except for those covering pharmaceuticals and that technological innovation often precedes scientific discovery. Everyone now agrees that centralized planning fails to produce economic progress. Kealey may well be on to something when he argues that centralized planning also fails to produce scientific progress.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

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  1. Good thing the Feds haven’t funded embryonic stem cell research, then. Don’t you agree, Ron?

  2. Ha! My boyfriend and I just had a big argument about government funding of energy R+D, and it touched on all three of the topics in the book’s title.

    Any reason why the Amazon link goes to the

  3. Another AGW story? Oh, you used retarded in a whole different context. Never mind, carry on!

  4. Chris Potter: Ouch, that hurts. Kealey makes one think hard about that. I still am against the Feds trying to ban even privately funded embryonic stem cell research (which some like Sen. Brownback have tried to do).

  5. loli: Yes, because the book has not been published yet in the U.S., but you can get it shipped to you via (as I did). Isn’t globalization wonderful!

  6. Ron Bailey,

    Well, opposing a ban on privately funded ESCR is at least consistent with one fork of libertarian thought. It’s good to see you’ve seen the dangers of supporting publicly funded ESCR as well.

  7. Of course Government funded research will be inefficient. The most promising line of research will always be the work being done in the home district of the most powerful congressman.
    But is there a danger that some research will not be done at all (obscure, theoretical research), because it is so far removed from any potential return of profit? I don’t know the answer to this question, and based on the review, I’m not sure the book addresses it directly.
    I’m not sure history is an adequate guide here, either. We may have, for the most part, progressed past the genius-in-the-basement stage. The Wright brothers couldn’t have funded their own super-collider.

  8. Only weakly negative, eh? I’d guess this is because of those places in which public funding does compete with private. I’m unsuprised it is neutral though, so many scientific discoveries have no immediate economically exploitable handle on them. Take Thermus aquaticus, perhaps the least relavant or related organism to mankind on earth and yet had there been no basic science done with it no one would have been able or likely to use its polymerase enzyme for PCR and there would have been no genomic revolution in biological science. How do you value the infrastructure of information and ideas created by basic researchers?

    That said, I’d like to believe non-public funding of science is the way to go. My experience as a publicly funded scientist with a basic knowledge of economics has led me to believe that the system is far from ideal and in the case of the NIH, becoming more of an impediment to real innovation than ever before. I just can’t figure how one would price pure curiosity? Could you have Wiki funding of programs that people find interesting, skip peer review of grants and market your experimental ideas directly to people interested in being a part of the scientific process, if only through finance?

    That actually seems like a good idea all of a sudden.

  9. Of course, it’s possible the genius-in-the-basement might be working on something we can’t debate because it doesn’t even exist yet.

  10. Hunter, see the Half Bakery, and know that it’s not the only such site.

  11. I am a scientist. I agree with the general point of this article as well. We do not need the government subsidizing R&D. That does not mean that the government should do NO R&D – it should just limit its R&D to that which directly supports its Constitutional duties, and no more.

  12. Here, here Chad!!! Totally agree. Ayn Rand be damned!

  13. Research produces innovation – period.

    Capitalizing on research is a market activity and sometimes the best of them (see PARC, Palo Alto Research Center) bomb commercially but succeed technically.

  14. It seems to me that quantifying the benefits of publicly funded research is more complex a task than can be handled by a simple correlation with some summary of economic growth.

    For instance, how much of the science done in private/industry R&D is done by scientists who were trained at publicly funded University research labs doing publicly funded research?

    How much of the private R&D builds upon basic research funded by the government?

    Anecdotes about the Wright brothers do not seem particularly informative…despite their emotional appeal.

  15. For instance, how much of the science done in private/industry R&D is done by scientists who were trained at publicly funded University research labs doing publicly funded research?

    Most of it. However, what would happen if all of those education subsidies were to disappear? Not a lot, honestly. Scientists would pay for their own education, and then demand higher salaries from their employers to compensate. This can be seen in the medical arena when comparing the US to Europe. In the US, would-be doctors largely pay for their own education. In Europe, it is almost completely subsidized. However, US doctors make much higher salaries in turn, and it more or less cancels. Btw, this is a significant part of the reason that the US spends more on “health care” and less on “higher education” than Europe.

    How much of the private R&D builds upon basic research funded by the government?

    This cuts both ways: How much public R&D builds upon basic and applied research funded by the private sector? Again, this will more or less cancel. R&D spending overall is roughly 60/40 private/public in the US. Not surprisingly, this is fairly close to the ratio of private and public spending.

  16. Dammit, Bailey. Thanks for reminding me I’m a worthless scab. I need a drink.

  17. In response to a comment a few lines above. I agree the historical correlations he draws on are tenuous at best. He list several Edison inventions, and let me tell you something, Edison was as profiteering as they come. People like him are the reason people shy away from truly free markets. He was domineering to the core. Research his feud with Tesla and you’ll see what I’m talking about. I think state supported research is important because it shields us from this sort of thing.

    For one thing, the government is so interested in corporate welfare that the intellectual property system is almost unusable. Government institutions like NIH and DARPA take some of the sting out of a quagmire of a patent system.

    I’ve gotten off the original topic so I’m going to try to get back on. Another reason those historical correlations are specious is that the biggest purchasers of many of these technological advancements made was the government. The wright flyer, all of Edison’s and Tesla’s electrical grid stuff, etc were all made commercially viable through goverment contracts and purchases.

    I’ll admit DARPA makes me cringe sometimes with its wastefulness. But gosh darn it if I haven’t gotten hooked on living in a world made better through its innovation, eg. arpanet to the internet, gps, etc.

    I just think without an efficient intellectual property system, which no is quite sure how to implement so far, without government support of open research, you end up with a tragedy of the anti-commons. The scholarly community, peer review, and openness in general are very important to innovation. If anyone wants to see just how damaging a private firm can be to innovation, make a comparison of the Windows operating system to an open source OS like Linux or FreeBSD. Windows is a broken window fallacy like no other. It sucks so much money out of the economy through bloated and insecure software all because of the closed nature of it’s operations.

    The article makes a fundamental assessment of public research. Often times its the secretive, distrusting private researchers operating in the ivory towers, not the university scientists, etc. Again, I go back to peer review, it is so important to scientific advancement.

    Well, that was a pretty ramble. Nice way to introduce myself to the community I guess.

  18. AFAIK, private corporations have never funded basic research — it’s not in their interest to fund activities with no profit horizon. The closest was Bell Labs, which promptly disintegrated after the break-up of Bell.

    Governments have always funded fundamental science, through royal patronage or universities. However, since the Cold War ended basic research has become a political football — I wouldn’t mind if some wealthy donors (I’m looking at you Messrs. Gates and Buffet) provided some stability.

  19. Hypnos, I believe there is no real meaning to the words “basic” and “applied” research in the first place. The only difference between what I do now working for a major chemical company, and what I did in grad school and as a post-doc largely on government grants is that what I am trying to do today is to produce a specific product for a specific set of customers. I am working on the SAME class of materials, using the SAME techniques, using the SAME instruments as I did as a student. Why is the former “basic” and the latter “applied”? Beats the hell out of me.

    Btw, I have seen at least twenty peer-reviewed journal papers out of my company that absolutely, 100% positively and without a shred of doubt are “basic” research. I am sure there are many more. But I guess they must be fakes, because companies don’t do that, I guess.

  20. Everyone now agrees that centralized planning fails to produce economic progress.

    Not everyone, Mr Baily. I recall reading an article in Newsweek a few weeks back, by their Science writer Sharon Begley, stating that centrally planned societies are better able to adapt scientific knowledge to public policy than those societies that are oriented to the free market. Many science writers seem particularly weak in understanding economics.

  21. Chad is right. Research is research. I just want to point out that it is my personal opinion that peer review and the general health of the scientific community is a fruit of the best of both worlds system we have now. Somehow I completely omitted this from my first post. With a community of both private firms and public researchers you have a sort of symbiosis, peer review and all that. Public research exists to cover the gaps where market forces would be counterproductive to research goals, and private research exists to take the benefits of public research, and their own, and effectively and efficiently implement solutions outside the government based on positive market forces.

    This coexistence is important. Public research enables a great deal of innovation. Taking it away would upset things greatly. Come to think of it, that is probably moot anyways as the government is such a huge consumer of science and tech. NASA, Air Force, etc contracts will always exert some force similar to pure public research, even if we wiped DARPA and NIH.

  22. “Free scientific inquiry” is redundant.

    “Free governmental inquiry” is a contradiction in terms.

    And just because the guv’ment is a huge consumer doesn’t change the fact that research is market-driven…consumers are consumers.

    See, that was much simpler than you thought, eh?

  23. How much of the private R&D builds upon basic research funded by the government?

    Some of it.

    How much government funded research builds upon private R&D?

    All of it.

  24. And just because the guv’ment is a huge consumer doesn’t change the fact that research is market-driven…consumers are consumers.

    Most customers are punished for buying shitty products….government is not.

  25. Chad,

    I would say “basic research” is for answering fundamental scientific questions, period. If you were synthesizing chemicals for customers, you weren’t doing basic research — doesn’t matter if it was funded by the gov’t.

    Now, i don’t know if “applied” stuff that has no profit horizon should be supported by the gov’t. Fusion power comes to mind as an interesting case — big risk, big reward, long timescale.

  26. Very, very little of public research money goes to “fundamental” questions because, frankly, there isn’t much fundamental science left to do in most fields – especially the ones we spend most of our money on.

    Most public funding for chemistry and material sciences goes to “allowing grad students to play around and try to make something that no one has ever made before, just to see if they can”. A third of these students stay in academia and spawn a new generation of grad students doing the same thing, the other two thirds goes to the private sector and instead makes new things that people actually have a use for.

  27. I think we can agree that there shouldn’t be public funding for what are essentially engineering fields, like materials science. I don’t know the funding situation in those areas intimately, but my *impression* was that they got quite a bit of funding from defense, corporations or university endowments anyway. (If you have any references for how funding sources break down in these fields, I would appreciate it.)

    However, I argue that there should be public funding for basic physics, theoretical math, zoology/ecology, archaeology, etc. To use a colleague’s example, wasn’t it a big deal when Galileo demonstrated that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around? This has no direct practical applications, but changes the way we see the universe. From a purely practical standpoint, basic science has a huge payoff — just likely not in one’s lifetime (Newton’s laws, for example).

    The funding situation in basic physics (which I know well) is unstable because it’s no longer considered part of the US’s defense strategy. So, it’s difficult to make and meet commitments in large projects like colliders, satellite instruments, telescopes, etc. — depends on the whims of the president and Congress, who are currently in a cat fight over war funding.

  28. I hasten to add that the incorporation of basic science into technology development seems to be accelerating. Quantum mechanics and special relativity led directly to atomic energy (and weapons) and semiconductors (and computers), all in 70 years.

  29. The argument, “if it is economically viable, then the free market will fund it” approaches idiocy. The “free market” is risk averse. Basic research without a pay-back of just a few years won’t get funded. Period. That last “period” was thrown just in case your Lasik reformed corneas missed the tiny dot preceeding it.

    Lasik surgery is possible partly because defense scientists working on aiming systems used in anti-ballistic missile systems had to figure out a way to adjust for a turbulent atmosphere. They invented much of adaptive optics to solve that problem. The free market would not have spent a dime on that. You Lasik guys be reading this through spectacles, or maybe RK enhaced corneas if the free market had its way.

  30. Wayne: But laser was invented at Bell Labs.

  31. Ron, actually the first working laser was done by Hughes Research Labs. As a former Hughes employee, I can tell you that Hughes was an arm of DoD.

    Bell labs today could not invent the laser, they have more pressing problems.

  32. Everyone now agrees that centralized planning fails to produce economic progress. Kealey may well be on to something when he argues that centralized planning also fails to produce scientific progress.

    I wish someone would tell our three current presidential candidates that.

    I recall reading an article in Newsweek a few weeks back, by their Science writer Sharon Begley, stating that centrally planned societies are better able to adapt scientific knowledge to public policy than those societies that are oriented to the free market.

    Well, yeah. Centrally-planned economies follow “public policy” (government planning) better than free markets. But that tends to impede economic and scientific progress. Centrally-planned governments concentrate on controlling their populations, not improving their living conditions.

    The funding situation in basic physics … depends on the whims of the president and Congress, who are currently in a cat fight over war funding.

    Which shows the fallacy of the government funding argument. Private funding has the limitation that it is profit motivated, and thus interested in research that can be quickly translated into products which produce economic progress. Government funding is motivated on getting reelected, which is an even shorter-term goal and less likely to produce either economic or scientific progress.

    Lasik surgery is possible partly because defense scientists working on aiming systems used in anti-ballistic missile systems had to figure out a way to adjust for a turbulent atmosphere.

    And that’s a short-term profit motive producing results immediately useful in the marketplace by contractors selling ABM systems to the government.

  33. Joshua, “Most customers are punished for buying shitty products….government is not.”

    No, just their “stockholders”…….us.

    Hypnos, “wasn’t it a big deal when Galileo demonstrated that the Earth revolved around the Sun, rather than the other way around?”

    And Galileo financed his research by marketing his telescopes to Venetian merchants, not through govt funding.

    “Quantum mechanics and special relativity led directly to atomic energy (and weapons) and semiconductors (and computers), all in 70 years.”

    And the most important work in both these fields took place utilizing such high-tech tools as chalkboards, pencil/paper. The human mind was the key, not some trillion dollar racetrack for neutrons.

  34. LarryA,

    Gov’t funding is less than ideal, no doubt, and the election cycle can screw with funding stability as it has under Bush and with the war. Moreover, stupid shit like the Mars program can supplant the strong science initiatives on the President’s whim.

    However, this is all better than zero funding. There hasn’t been money for basic research in physics since Bell Labs, which last supported it when Bell was a quasi-public monopoly. IBM even shut down its Watson Research Center, which focused largely on programs with a long profit horizon (~10-20 years).



    * Galileo was funded by the de Medicis, whose children he tutored, and he had a position with the Catholic church (before that whole blasphemy thing).

    * It’s true that basic physics is more expensive now than in the past, which is not surprising since we’re pushing not just the conceptual frontier, but the technological one.

    That said, it’s cavalier to call 19th century physics cheap. It took an inferometer floating on molten lead to convince people of special relativity, and careful, state-of-the-art telescope observations to convince people of general relativity. Even for lab experiments, people had to blow their own glass and make their own circuits from bare wire, rather than simply buy the commodity parts like today.

  35. * that should read “_corporate_ money for basic research in physics” — sorry

  36. Hypnos:

    Didn’t mean to be cavalier about physics from ANY period. I just meant that the most important ingredient in any new discovery is the discoverer himself/herself. Cheap? I think not. I would trade all the gadgets at Cal-Tech for one truly superior mind, straight up.

    And that the most important work takes place in their grey matter. The devices (whether two balls on an inclined plane or a 20 mile long collider) often only serve to prove to others what the discoverer already knows through their superior ability to conceptualize and reason.

  37. For Ron Bailey, in case he hasn’t seen it yet…

  38. I haven’t read the book, but why would basic research funding in one country contribute to growth only in that one country?

  39. Quick,

    Yeah, but you only know who has the superior intuition after the fact 🙂

    In 1905, Einstein was a humble, smart guy with great ideas. In 1920, he was a transcendent genius.

  40. “The Wright brothers couldn’t have funded their own super-collider.”

    What economic gains have come from super-colliders? What commercial technologies have come from them?

  41. Mark,

    The most famous technology from collider programs is the World Wide Web — developed simply in order to get a handle on documentation, strewn across various servers belonging to groups working on different aspects of the collider.

    Also big are cryogenics (used widely in science and medicine), superconducting magnets (used in MRI), and most recently grid computing (10,000 faster than standard Internet, using commodity hardware). There exist innumerable patents in electronics, detectors, etc. from collider programs.

    One might argue that if someone had vision, they could develop these things in the private sector; however, the fact that this tech comes from pure science shows that pushing limits and serendipity are big factors.

    Moreover, the knowledge in basic science programs could yield huge technological benefits centuries into the future, or faster: machines, electricity, satellites, atomic energy, semiconductors and lasers all came from basic physics.

    Finally, I think simple curiosity is justification enough — the practice of reason, to understand reality, is its own reward.

  42. What is new is that Kealey applies the gimlet eye of evolutionary psychology…

    wow fuck this.

  43. The average person, having no idea what the “scientific community” is talking about, must foot the bill for what has become science of the completely insane. They are told what amazing progress has been made on some utterly abstract and unfalsifiable concept, the equipment costing billion and billions of dollars. I have no quarrel with government funding of research up to a point, but this whole enterprise has run completely off the rails.

    One problem is that because practically all research is funded directly or indirectly by the government, the scientists are virtually all socialists. If you doubt that, just ask one. They just need more and more of your tax dollars. It surprises me that the congress finally quit funding the superconducting supercollider here in the U.S.

    An example of how far wrong science has gone is the “discovery” of the top quark. Without trying to bore all you political animals with the details, suffice it to say that no discovery was made. They had to discover it or their whole nutty theory would have gone out the window and they couldn’t have made any arguments to their government overseers for more funding.

    How this worked was this. I read the paper on this “discovery” and found it was just a consensus opinion of more than a thousand scientists who signed the paper. The confirmation of the existence of the top quark was just a bunch of scared guys signing a paper based on unsound statistical evidence fearing they would lose funding and the end of their bullshit jobs. Who is there to contradict these boneheads? No one.

    Meanwhile, ever more money is thrown at projects that have no basis in reality. How can this be stopped?

  44. Finally, I think simple curiosity is justification enough — the practice of reason, to understand reality, is its own reward.

    Not so. You cannot justify government funded science just because it expands knowledge, considering that government does not produce anything so as to fund itself – it takes its funding from direct thievery (or “taxation” as people call it euphemistically), or by printing paper money, which is fraud.

    However, there are many instances of private individuals funding scientific projects precisely to give their names to new discoveries and not just to find something profitable. Scientists do not really need the government for this; the amount of loot available is, of course, enticing, and one has to wonder how much research has been done that was obvious would lead nowhere, just to grab a piece of the budgetary pie.

  45. It’s almost a worthless conversation. Of course private R&D is going to provide more bang for the buck when compared to public projects. They work in total opposite ways. Funded research is a here today, gone tomorrow market in which somebody gives you money, rather than you earning it. It is limited because it usually is not done with in the context of efficiency, or broad application, but rather just simple discovery. On the flip side, for profit R&D efforts are directive, have broader scope and have market creating potential. Public research has no market, just free one time money. This is not even to speak of the potential for bias or coercion when the public funds come from agenda driven special interests. Considering these factors, it would be difficult to believe that funding public research could produce better returns than private.
    As a citizen I would like to see the government participate, or lead by example. The first space missions probably couldn’t have been done without the government’s help. But many missions since could have been. Instead 30 year old space shuttles did the same stuff for 30 years. We have predator drones and we can put up, and blow up satellites with ease. Couldn’t we easily have space planes by now. I feel the role of the government in R&D is to direct research guided by the principles of that nation. Support great ideas, contribute great ideas, but for the most part, sit back and let science be a free enterprise. It’s the better value.

  46. Creative Parsimony,

    I conjecture that you are full of shit, and don’t know the first thinkg about collider data analysis. If you have specific criticisms of the top discovery analysis, let’s hear them.

    BTW, the Tevatron at Fermilab has produced numerous top events since discovery.



    I presume you are taking the hard libertarian position that there are no positive externalities, so gov’t shouldn’t fund public utilities, schools or roads (I’ll be charitable and grant your a Friedmanian night watchman state, even if it is funded by taxes).

    If you don’t, then you have to argue why curiosity is not a virtue worth promoting, and that basic science won’t pay off on *any* timescale.


    Derek D,

    Like some others here (and Kealey himself), you don’t address the fact that basic and applied research are different economically.

    I agree that gov’t funding is imperfect and prone to influence peddling and muzzling of scientists. But I don’t see an alternative.

  47. For further reading on this subject you might check out this article from the Independent Review:

  48. Tom,

    Thanks for the article. They provide many criticisms of the current science funding regime, most of which I agree with. There are two I disagree with:

    * That there is incentive for corporations to invest in basic science because of the “first mover” advantage and training of professionals in the “soft knowledge” of the field. If discoveries can lead to innovations so quickly (i.e., with profit horizons tolerated by investors and within the lifetimes of hires) then I would hesitate to call such fields “basic.” Moreover, corporations already fund these fields (e.g., biochemistry and materials science) and the gov’t need not. Again, contrast these fields with basic physics, astronomy, theoretical math, zoology, etc.

    * That if the gov’t stopped funding basic science, private donors would fill the void. This would be wonderful, and it is completely unrealistic. There are many, many private foundations in the US which support various humanistic aims and compete directly with the gov’t (e.g., education, aid to the poor, etc.), but very, very few which support basic science (only the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Susan G. Komen Foundation comes to mind, and medicine has a payoff horizon).

    If anyone has ideas to improve the interest of wealthy private donors in funding not just faculty chairs, but actual research, I’d like to know!

  49. I don not understand economy domain much.Yet I remember the quote” scienceneeds and deserves increased support from public funds”.The private sector should inject in more money ,I believePrivate businesses are the first to reap the fruits of 100% positive outcome.

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