Do Government "Investments" in Scientific Research Pay Off?

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research funding

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released the results of a poll that, among other things, asked Americans what they thought of government spending on scientific research. The poll found that a majority of Americans are big believers in the efficacy of government-funded research. As the Pew Center reported:

For its part, the general public endorses the idea that government outlays for research are necessary for scientific progress. Six-in-ten (60%) say "government investment in research is essential for scientific progress"; only about half as many (29%) say "private investment will ensure that enough scientific progress is made even without government investment."

As is often the case with opinions about the role of government, there is a substantial partisan divide in views of government investment in scientific research. Fewer than half of conservative Republicans (44%) say that government investment in research is essential for scientific progress; 48% of conservative Republicans say private investment will ensure that scientific progress is made. By comparison, 56% of moderate and liberal Republicans, 59% of independents and a much larger majority of Democrats (71%) say that government investment in research is essential.

Scientific progress is a somewhat nebulous idea, but the Pew pollsters went on to ask if Americans thought that government "investments" in science "pay off" in the long run or not?  The pollsters found:

Regardless of whether they see government investment as essential to scientific progress, large majorities say that government investments in science do pay off. Nearly three-quarters of the public (73%) say that government investments in basic scientific research pay off in the long run, while a similar percentage (74%) holds that investments in engineering and technology pay off in the long run.

Opinions about these investments vary little across political and demographic groups. Eight-in-ten Democrats (80%) say that government investments in basic science research pay off in the long run, as do 72% of independents and 68% of Republicans. Views about whether government engineering and technological investments pay off largely mirror those about basic science investments.

One way to think about how government "investments" in science might "pay off" is to ask whether or not they end up increasing the growth rate of a country's gross domestic product. However, there is some evidence that government-funded scientific research is not the engine for growth the proponents claim it is. As I reported more than a year ago:

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. 

Go here for complete Pew survey results and here for my column on "The Failure of Scientific Central Planning."

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  1. Personally, I liked the university. They gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything! You’ve never been out of college! You don’t know what it’s like out there! I’ve worked in the private sector. They expect results.
    – Dr Ray Stanz (Dan Aykroyd), Ghostbusters

  2. What, exactly, does “‘enough’ scientific progress” mean?

  3. This is too precious not to share:

    SAN FRANCISCO – The president of San Francisco’s transit workers union says a light-rail operator blacked out just before his train crashed into a parked train, injuring dozens of passengers.

    Union president Irwin Lum told The Associated Press on Monday that a “medical condition” was to blame for the driver’s loss of consciousness.

    -AP

  4. One way to think about how government “investments” in science might “pay off” is to ask whether or not they end up increasing the growth rate of a country’s gross domestic product.

    I disagree with this premise almost entirely — “public” research should be limited to those topics for which there is no clear commercial benefit; where the only expected outcome is knowledge.

    The government should absolutely stay out of the business of trying to jump start private industry by providing “research” dollars. Any R&D that has some potential commercial application should be dealt with by private businesses (individually or in consortiums).

  5. It is a medical condition . . . if you drink that much before work.

  6. First, very few people in the general public (myself included!) know remotely enough about this issue to have an informed opinion. This study is about as useful as polling people on how many angels can dance on a uranium atom.

    Second, how does Mr Bailey reconcile the results he reported more than a year ago about the inefficacy of government funded research, with his previous claims that opposing federally funding embryonic stem cell research was tantamount to murder?

  7. As I understand it, government funds a LOT of basic research. Private businesses seem to make a lot of use of this basic research. Is the government squandering a lot of money for very little return? I don’t know. My gut instinct says probably but that doesn’t mean I know enough to reliably comment. So long.

  8. I have zero confidence in any paper shuffler to understand how scientific and engineering research translates into useful services and products.

  9. Well, it’s almost two o clock over here. Guess my day has to start sometime. Later peeps.

  10. Let me put it this way. Just imagine how much better our short term weather predicitons would be today if computer modelers weren’t tied up in the 1970’s determining the effects of Global Cooling.

  11. If only people knew how much federally-funded research was fraudulent. I attended graduate school at a high profile research institution in La Jolla that was 80% federally funded. There I saw no less than 6 severe incidents of scientific fraud. Several less-than-severe incidents. The pressure to falsify data was extreme- there were several moments when I thought I might cave into it. While there, one professor had to retract 6 papers (some in high-profile journals such as science and nature). A postdoctoral researcher sent out a mass email to the lists accusing his boss of covering up a fraudulent paper – and several months later, a second email showed up. One of these papers has since been found to be fraudulent by a disgruntled worker by a published paper in a peer-reviewed journal, yet no retraction has been issued. Several “internal investigations” have been commissioned, but no reprimands or apologies have been issued, at least, not publically.

    What people do not realize is that federal subsidies for research, entrenches the scientific elites and prevents upstarts from mounting challenges by keeping the cost of supplies excessively high. The grants criteria overwhelmingly favor innovative but nonconfrontational ideas instead of solid ideas, and therefore we will see a “science bubble” collapse as more and more experiments are run on shaky foundations (with the desire to challenge hypotheses waning) and a lot of sloppy work will have to be redone.

  12. Countries who subsidize public scientific research don’t get any more benefit from it than countries who just use others’ subsidized public research? Color me shocked. Next you’ll tell me that other countries have better internet access than the nation that gave us ARPAnet!?!

    Research is not a zero sum game. It is entirely possible for public research to be worth the money that one nation spends on it, to that nation, even if other nations get to be “free riders” afterward.

    This should be even more clear when you realize that among the nations being compared is the USA, which is a world leader in both national research and per-capita GDP (by some wacky coincidence, I’m sure), and that the study discussed uses “growth rates”, a metric which is is practically designed to punish nations researching new ways to improve productivity by comparison with nations who can just follow in their more advanced neighbors’ footsteps.

    “public” research should be limited to those topics for which there is no clear commercial benefit

    I sympathize, and I’m tempted to agree, but isn’t it a little ironic that we’re discussing the issue over TCP/IP/HTTP instead of one of the many competing networking implementations from Prodigy, AOL, MSN, and all the others that went by the wayside or ended up becoming glorified standard ISPs?

    It’s not a coincidence that the market overwhelmingly rejected all the networking systems that the market invented alone. It’s a natural consequence of Metcalfe’s Law. And in research, just like in networking, the more people you talk to the more valuable the work you do is. Even for technology with commercial benefit, the research model of “work in secret, then lock everything behind a patent for a generation” is a very hard one to make competitive.

  13. While there, one professor had to retract 6 papers (some in high-profile journals such as science and nature).

    But, but . . . those are Peer Reviewed! Anyone who questions the Peer Reviewed global warming studies is a denialist who can be ignored and ridiculed!

  14. @roystgnr:

    On the other hand, TCP/IP was developed by the military/DARPA. Arguably, authorized – in terms of the constitution. And the decentralized system that they developed (ostensibly to be safe in case key nodes would be destroyed in a nuclear attack) kind of satisfies an utterly acharacteristic (for the military) libertarian paradigm at a meta-level. so it’s kind of a contradiction on top of contradictions.

  15. I have zero confidence in any paper shuffler to understand how scientific and engineering research translates into useful services and products.

    A view from inside this system: the closer you get to the research, the more the decision makers know. Many DOE funding reps are active researches on sabbatical, or lab staff scientists between jobs or the like.

    The thing is that these people have a pretty good idea if the stuff they decide on will make progress in their sub-discipline, but this is a very different thing from with making the most positive impact on the way people live, or even the most cost efficient way to improve humanity’s store scientific knowledge.

    Those decisions are made at a higher (and less expert) level. At the highest level, funding decisions are made my Congress, which is to say by people who could take “a series of tubes” as a serious basis for policy making. ::sigh::

    At that, all the positive arguments for government funded research are utilitarian rather than fundamental. When Libertopia comes, I’m going to have to get a real job. And probably take a pay cut, but I think it would be worth it.

  16. People are dumb and politicians are really dumb.

    Exactly the people I want picking scientific winners. Not.

  17. @EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy

    Hi there, I’m in the system myself – infact, I’m tuning a LabView PID controller for a microfluidic system as I write this. By paper shufflers I meant the consultants/analysts/economists at the OECD who almost certainly have no real idea about this sort of thing. I definitely did not mean to denigrate the researcher-administrators who are at the coal face!

  18. BTW– I don’t know what field anon works in, but my experience does not parallel his. Of course, I do Big Science, and most results see a couple of levels of criticism and review inside the collaborations before they ever see the light of day.

    And people do get credit for confirmatory results (though not as much, of course, you have to be first to get the Nobel).

    And a lot of results get checked up on as a side-effect of later research, so it simply isn’t safe to fudge the results.

    But the history suggests that unconscious biases can adverse effect complicated analysis efforts, so there is a long-term trend towards increasingly “blinded” analysis efforts.

    YMMV, and all that.

  19. @EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy:

    “When Libertopia comes, I’m going to have to get a real job”

    What? No, there are plenty of private organizations which fund scientific research. HHMI, Wellcome, Leverhulme, Carnegie, etc etc etc. Hell, the whole notion of a large research institution was created BEFORE federal funding for research existed. As an institute, you wanted to hire prestigious scientists to attract student clientele. Now you hire prestigious scientists to get overhead funding to run your day to day plant operations.

  20. @EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy

    Hi there, I’m in the system myself

    Ack!

    My comment wasn’t really aimed at you. Just using your words as a place to riff from.

    That said: Unless LabView has improved a lot since the last time I used it, you are either evil or sadly deluded. Out of respect, I’m going with evil.

  21. LabView is truly the bane of my existence (although it is a little better these days). If it was like C or FORTRAN or Matlab then it would take hours rather than weeks to do things. Put me down as evil but sadly tied to NI products via dept software licensing practices …

  22. anon, you make a good point about fraud. I remember the day my mentor showed me data on a bird population he studied. The birds ate horseshoe crabs which New Jersey fishers also harvested. Environmentalists wanted to stop the horseshoe crab harvest on the grounds that it was destroying the bird population. My mentor confided in me that the data pointed towards a natural cycle in the bird populaiton and a recovery in the near future. He said that if he published this result, they wouldn’t get the policy they wanted. Months later, the team researching the bird population gave a presentation on how the declining population is a dire problem. They got the ban they wanted.

  23. Hello from another system insider – only I jumped from academia to industry. Still writing grant applications, though.

    I believe we could go farther on certain projects with private funding, but that funding is harder to find, so TPTB tend to aim for the federal dollars, first. It’s not easy to wean yourself from the federal teat, when you’re a small business and ginning up revenue is a slow process.

    I’m not justifying it, just stating how things are from my POV.

  24. @jtuf:

    I wasn’t aware that horseshoe crabs were edible. seems like mostly shell, to me.

  25. If the question posed is: “Does publicly funded scientific research gives value exceeding the input dollars?”

    The answer is likely “yes”.

    If the question posed is: “Does publicly funded scientific research give value that is less than privately funded research, thus leading to less than optimal allocation of scarce financial resource?”

    The answer is clearly a “hell yes”.

    So, the poll question posed is bogus — it doesn’t clarify the real choices being made, and opportunities being lost.

  26. “how many angels can dance on a uranium atom.”

    All of them.

  27. Everybody knows atoms aren’t real. Dumbass.

  28. I know a little about this. First, there are several different ways the government can fund scientific research. One is, money to universities, usually post-doctoral students. Another is, the government can fund private business directly. Funding can come from several different areas . For example; DOD, DOE, NIH (Health and Human Services) etc. Most grants are competitive and peer awarded and reviewed. Most require matching private funds from 10-50%. For more info go to grants.gov

    Does government investment pay off? I can’t speak to all of it, but in the case of fiber optics, I would say absolutely. Optical fiber communication was developed by the military (DOD) for use in secure, localized communication in a combat zone. (I’m citing this from memory, from a lecture in college. I have a degree in Photonics). After being declassified, the government must share this info with private business. Enter Bell Labs. They built on the technology that was developed. So, in this case the initial investment failed miserably to produce the desired result. But it laid the groundwork for the technology that has allowed us to build and develop a nationwide fiber optic telecommunication system.

  29. Government Research:
    If you successfully finish your job, the money stops.

    Private Research:
    If you successfully finish your job, the money train rolls in!

    Basically, the incentive system in government research encourages projects that never end. I’m not saying that all researchers drag out projects for monetary gain, obviously, but the incentive is there and it does influence decision making. Losing your job once you successfully complete it tends to suck.

    The private sector incentive system encourages researchers to finish quickly in order to keep costs down and to hopefully begin profiting from any discoveries. Researchers that have proven themselves will be rewarded with more work and higher pay – lest they be hired away by a competitor.

    Which system do you think would produce more results?

  30. anon | July 20, 2009, 3:27pm | #

    @jtuf:

    I wasn’t aware that horseshoe crabs were edible. seems like mostly shell, to me.

    The birds eat the horseshoe crabs when the crabs are eggs. The fishers harvest the crabs for their blood which contains a compound used for a test.

  31. A good discussion by Kealey on the topic:
    http://vimeo.com/4798314

  32. RE: Horseshoe Crabs

    The issues are several. Only one migratory bird is reliant on the eggs of the horseshoe crab, and that’s the Red Knot. The horseshoe crabs are invaluable to the pharmaceutical industry due to their copper based blood. Thousands of crabs are caught, bled and released every year. The problem is the conch fish (scungilli) fishermen. They use the horseshoe crab as bait. Add to that all of the shoreline development encroaching on the crab’s nesting areas.

    The problem with private sector research is that it’s difficult to come up with the capital needed. If you’re GE, and sell 10,000,000 light bulbs a year, you can afford some research. But companies have bond and stock holders to worry about. And it seems not many are willing to invest in long term anymore. Just a handful of venture capital. And, if you’re able to secure a government grant, it gives credibility to your planned research. There is also private sector investment in university research. It’s much cheaper to fund a handful of post-docs, than to hire a half dozen PhDs. There’s so much to it, it’s dizzying. I don’t know how these guys do it. The fact is, private and public funding are intertwined. Both are necessary. Sometimes they produce results, sometimes they don’t. But rarely is the data collected ever wasted. I would suggest checking out the National Science Foundation (NSF) website.

  33. dbcooper | July 20, 2009, 2:40pm | #

    I have zero confidence in any paper shuffler to understand how scientific and engineering research translates into useful services and products.

    That’s why panels of scientists are employed to determine who gets what grants.

  34. Government Research:
    If you successfully finish your job, the money stops.

    Private Research:
    If you successfully finish your job, the money train rolls in!

    He he. There is no such thing as “finished” with research.

  35. I think there are clear benefits to government-funded research.. I think the current system of mixed government funded and private funded research works well. Good ideas aren’t limited to the public or private sector.. government funded research works because there isn’t the pressure to create a marketable product, and private research works because there is pressure to create marketable products. You also have the Googles of the world, whose idea came from university research, but quickly morphed into a private entity..

  36. The government-funded basic research creates (or enlarges) a market for high-end, specialized, precision lab gear and tools that is served by private industry. I assume some of the engineering in that top-end esoteric gear (like $100,000 128-channel direct neural interfaces) works its way out and down and through the economy.

    It’s not like government-funded labs are self-sufficient, making everything they use.

    If nobody’s doing weird stuff in science labs, then nobody’s going to do the cutting-edge private research to make the tools needed to do the weird stuff.

  37. Of course there are benefits to research, whoever does it. Even to the kind of blue-sky esoteric pure science that I do. I mean, for Glod’s sake, I try to measure neutrino oscillation parameters. Damn near no expectation of any practical uses, but you can do non-proliferation research. But it drives some materials development, and trains a bunch a generalist, practical geeks.

    But the existence of benefits isn’t really the point. The point is how efficiently it generates those benefits.

    Image that US$10,000,000 of government funded research generates X units of benefits, and US$10,000,000 of private funding generates Y units.

    If Y is bigger than X, then every dollar of public funding constitutes a drain relative the optimal case. Even though it is better than the no research spending case.

    That is the point.

  38. Tricky Prickears,

    The fact is, private and public funding are intertwined. Both are necessary. Sometimes they produce results, sometimes they don’t. But rarely is the data collected ever wasted.

    You took the words right out of my mouth…….how dare you.

    You’ve summed up my sentiments nicely.

    dbcooper,

    Labview? I feel for you.

  39. kinnath,

    “public” research should be limited to those topics for which there is no clear commercial benefit

    I have to respectfully disagree with you here, more or less entirely. I have a PhD in engineering and have, if I may say so, been fairly successful doing R&D, both in academia (in a top 10 university) and out (management at least likes me enough to keep me funded doing R&D, I still publish regularly, have loads of patents and all the other feathers in the hat).

    The inefficiencies of the public research system are legion, and many are described above. But are there clear benefits? I would argue emphatically, yes! And yes! again. Here’s why.

    To begin with you must take “the system” as it really exists. Over the course of recent decades, corporations are spending less and less on what most of us in the community would call “real research”. It’s gone from a decade to five years to six months, as the pay-off horizon required, if you want to get something funded in industry. No, it’s not this bad everywhere, but I suspect few would disagree when I say that industry is doing less and less “look ahead” R&D.

    There are lots of reasons why, part of being the tax rates that corporations pay, and partly because you never know what insane law a government agency will pass tomorrow, that wipes out years of R&D investment in the blink of an eye.

    If government stopped doing basic R&D right now, we’d all be much poorer because much less R&D would get done.

    Would we be better off if government funded no R&D and private industry funded all of it? That’s really, really hard to say. But I can tell you how it work for us engineers.

    When the companies I’ve worked for posed a problem that needs solving, for whatever reason and on whatever time line, there’s one tool I’ve always been able to rely on to help me develop answers: the open, published literature.

    There are few problems in the world you can work on, that somebody hasn’t already made some attempt to solve before you got there. It’s a corollary to the fact that coming up with a genuinely new idea is really freaking hard.

    I spend a lot more time reading the open literature than most of my colleagues. My colleagues think I’m a genius, but the fact is I’m just a rabid reader. If I lost access to the open literature I’d wither and die……

    We in industry are able to tackle and solve many, even most, of the big problems that we do, because there is an existing foundation of knowledge out there for us to draw on. The bulk of this foundation was paid for by government grants. I know this for sure and certain because when people publish papers they usually cite their funding source.

    We can all argue about whether private or public research makes the most sense in Libertopia. But in this world, I’m quite certain that we’d all be the poorer without publicly funded research.

    Even apparently stupid research is not a waste. As new technologies evolve in industry, seemingly obscure mathematical exercises that someone did (on Uncle Sam’s dime) a decade ago may be the jump-off point I have to solve some new problem that nobody has ever faced before. And I use that example because it’s happened to me.

    But there are also classes of problems that very simply belong in an academic research setting, just because of their nature. This is a consequence of the logic of large groups, if you’re familiar with that. There are many problems in applied technology where we’d all be better off if the research was done and better answers obtained, yet no one individual in the crowd is going to up and fund it on their own. Because the cost/benefit analysis just doesn’t pan out at the individual level.

    So, I argue, we need the apparently esoteric R&D (which I believe you’d concur with), but we also need the more nearly applied and practical types of R&D just as much.

    Given this, and the way technology evolves, it would be utterly futile to even try to define research that does or does not have “commercial value”. “Commercial value” is very much a moving target.

    btw, many academic professors pride themselves on doing research that does not have immediate and practical value.

  40. Everything under the sun confirms the libertarian position, and it’s all reported here in Reason!

  41. I’ll emphasize something E. Scrooge pointed out. Public/academic/peer-review research yields output in the form of publications. But private sector, product oriented R&D is often kept proprietary. Consequently there is a big difference in the value produced. Also, some gov’t research (usually universities) is first rate, some (usually defense labs) is worthless. Broad generalizations about the value of gov’t R&D are therefore inaccurate.

  42. we will see a “science bubble” collapse as more and more experiments are run on shaky foundations

    What, like computer models of the climate?

    -jcr

  43. That’s why panels of scientists are employed to determine who gets what grants.

    Those are exactly the kinds of people who backed Langley and ignored the Wright brothers, I’m guessing.

    -jcr

  44. Often overlooked in the private R&D versus public R&D debate is that many companies are quite good at forming consortia to handle long term research interests common to their business ecosystem. Microsoft, Google, HP and the rest do just fine helping to fund consortia like W3.org that tackle the long term task of researching and advancing the state of the art of HTML, XML and related protocols. If no government funding existed, industries would pony up funds in order to develop their common long term interests, even if the time lines are on the order of decades.

    Wow, that sounds great! Is all we need do is convince the US government to stop all R&D funding and let industrial concerns fill in all necessary gaps? Not so fast, Bubbah Louie. Think like a game player: government funding is fiat funding. All government need do is draft legislation or other sort of commandment and, bam! Funding is available either through forced taxation or through the printing of money. No “wasteful” process of courting investors, shopping multiple versions of your business plan all over God’s Blue Marble, no wining, no dining, do arguing about exit strategies…the government that funds an R&D project runs that project FIRST. The US marshaled more funds, more quickly than the Soviet Union and as a result we beat the Soviets to the Moon. What are competing countries to do? Continue to rely on the same, slow commercial funding processes demanded by capitalist industry or accelerate their funding process through fiat (ultimately, by the point of a gun)?

    To the victor go the spoils. For many of a country’s knowledge requirements there may be a higher premium on time than on amount of money spent. This usually happens in war time. However once the process starts it is almost impossible to stop for a whole variety of reasons.

  45. …of course, this still does not mean that the process OUGHT not be stopped. I am just saying the process is difficult to reverse in any meaningful way.

  46. I remember a grad school office mate working at USDA telling me years later about the total waste of money his unit was. I respect this guy as a hard working smart guy, so I was totally shocked by his comments. Today, in my company every project is prioritized for potential payoff – succeed or die is the motif.

    Famous R&D aphorism: IF we knew what we were doing it wouldn’t be called research.

  47. We can point to the development of commercial nuclear power as an industrial policy that paid off.

    Granted, the basic research into nuclear physics and fission was done elsewhere, but the Manhattan Project laid the groundwork and the Atomic Energy Commission did some great work in funding private industry to test out ideas and concepts. The AEC also funded some fundamental engineering research, such as the SPURT reactor tests.

  48. Mr. Scrooge wrote:Even apparently stupid research is not a waste. As new technologies evolve in industry, seemingly obscure mathematical exercises that someone did (on Uncle Sam’s dime) a decade ago may be the jump-off point I have to solve some new problem that nobody has ever faced before. And I use that example because it’s happened to me.

    I can point to a concrete example: elliptic functions. When I was getting my master’s in EE in the mid-80s, the first work on applications of elliptic functions to filtering was being done. One of my profs remarked that the mathematicians were miffed because someone had found a use for them.

    At the time, the first work was being done by the engineers. Now they are the basis of advances in signal processing. The original research was paid for by grants to math departments, the next step was in university labs – paid for by grants, and now products are being developed by industry.

    My experience is that government is good at R, but not D – research and not developement. But to do the D you gotta have the R.

  49. Hey you guys are TOTALLY missing the point. You speak as if there is no reason for “private” research to fund anything if there isn’t a market benefit.

    But there’s also charitable private research. Research foundations. You see, when fraud occurs funded by private research, it’s no big deal, that’s for the donors to deal with. When fraud occurs funded by public research, that was my fucking money taken from me without my consent.

  50. Did anyone notice that all of the examples of “useful” research (tcp/ip, fiber optics, nuclear energy) emanated from DOD research? I mean, perhaps it’s not coincidental that the research that wound up being useful is the only research that is constitutionally permissible?

  51. I’d agree that much useful research comes out of the DoD universe.

    I wouldn’t agree that all the rest is somehow worth less. I’ve used results in papers that were funded by other government agencies as often as not.

    It’s also true that government is better at the R and not so good at the D, in general. Although a good step in the right direction on the D front has been — much as I hate to admit it — SBIRs and STTRs, which fund small companies to go do the D.

    I have seen actual, useful (and risky) technologies go from academic lab experiments to in-use hardware through that avenue.

    This is a tough corner of the universe for libertarian-ism in my mind, and always has been. Back in grad school I ran around thinking that government shouldn’t be funding all this “waste of time” research that I saw going on.

    Then I got a “real job” in industry, had to start solve “real world” problems, and it wasn’t long before I acquired a whole new perspective.

  52. I do believe there’s a book on this topic: The Economic Laws of Scientific Research by Terence Kealy. He surveyed government funded research from the Roman Empire to today. Based on his book, I would say his short answer to the question would be, “No.”

  53. The poll did not ask the question “as opposed to what?”. Yes, there’s benefit from public R&D but when compared to private R&D, there’s no contest. Private R&D is far more efficient. As an example, mapping the human genome was done by private entities in a fraction of the time and budget that public R&D was predicting.

  54. I have worked in the publicly funded R&D defense sector for about 10 years (full disclosure – I am ex-military and conservative). There is certainly the possibility of creating a large group of folks who get paid relatively well around some cluster of R&D programs. To that end, it does support the positive aspects that come with creating a middle class out of whole cloth. That being said, I would say that at best govt funded research is neutral, and might actually be hostile in some cases to advancing the science. Funding is all politically motivated (in the greater, not necessarily narrow partisan sense of the word) , and while this is true to a degree in private R&D, the private sector does eventually expect an ROI, where the govt sector is generally selected to confirm the biases of the selection committee. It tends to NOT advance the state of science if the scientists on the selection committee were wrong (see the late Dr Bussard’s tribulations with the his IETC fusion against the Tokamek orthodoxy). It probably doesnt advance it much if they were right either (they dont like being told they were incomplete). In these cases (which are the rule, not the exception), I think the only time the science gets advanced is when someone who worked some time in the public sector gets fed up enough to strike it out into academia or into making their own private company. I DO think it is possible for govt funding to help, but it is exclusively in second order or higher effects – distinctly difficult to prove.

  55. two things I think you missed (apologies if this comment is repeated; my browser barfed)

    1) The government funds enormous amount of basic research on which the private sector is dependent. Almost all drug development, for example, starts with NIH-funded academic research. The private interest then take over and bring those discoveries to market, including safety testing. So that private sector you praise is getting a leg up from the public sector you downgrade. The impact of public funding on the economy does not show up very well since it’s one degree removed and, by definition, much basic research goes nowhere.

    2) The government funds many “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” disciplines, such as paleontology, anthropology, astronomy, taxonomy. Think of the Hubble Space Telescope — it is enormously expensive but provides little practical benefit. Now maybe you think that these things aren’t worth funding because they don’t provide economic growth. But I happen to think they are what life is all about. Not everything can be about growing the economy by another 0.1%.

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