When the science funding debate is ignited by reports that lawmakers are considering a new cut, news outlets are quick to publish stories about the “anti-science” legislators roaming Washington, D.C. with their dangerous unscientific biases running the country.
What a bunch of old religious nuts, reporters and left-leaning critics suggest. They want science to die along with the planet.
Unfortunately, the winning narrative is nothing but that, a narrative. And whenever it pops up, people take it seriously, often ignoring facts — particularly those that demonstrate lawmakers are never truly serious about putting an end to government-funded anything.
So let’s look at what matters here. If science and advancing science so that we have access to better health treatments, technologies, and more convenient consumer products is what’s at stake, why would we, thinking individuals, allow scientific research to be funded by a handful of bureaucrats who have zero incentives to make good use of taxpayer money?
In a Bloomberg column, Holbert L. Harris Chair of Economics at George Mason University Tyler Cowen explains that when scientific projects are funded in the private sector, actual projects get the cash, not overhead. What does that mean? It means that private organizations understand that funding funneled to overhead, meaning indirect costs that go to facilities and administration as opposed to equipment, lab supplies, researcher salaries, etc, are often wasted.
When governments redirect taxpayer-funded money to organizations working on scientific research, they are simply putting more money into the power structure of these universities and big conglomerates, strengthening administrators and already established scientists. Who loses? Young and motivated researchers who are willing to take on incredibly ground-breaking projects that may not require that much funding in the first place. If governments weren’t the sole provider of funds but the private sector, these researchers wouldn’t have to lobby universities for grants. Instead, they would have to simply prove their work is worth investing on in the open marketplace.
In an article for the Mises Institute, Dr. Michel Accad explains that once science became influenced by a “massive government stimulus program” in the 1970s, the funding inflation “greatly devalued the worth of individual papers.” Now, studies must be “peer-reviewed,” meaning they must be reevaluated by others in the same field and published in peer-review journals to be accepted.
But as we have learned with the Austrian theory of the business cycle, when access to funding (or credit) is easy, entrepreneurial malinvestment becomes a reality. When it comes to scientific research investment, inflated science funding may lead to “malscience,” or as Accad puts it, “scientific output that is not well coordinated to the needs of the scientific community, because this centralized funding cannot reflect the needs of those intended to ‘consume’ the product of the funded research.”
As you can see, if the advancement of sound science is what truly matters, then leaving it in the hands of governments means fueling malinvestment as opposed to allowing scientific research be carried out as a response to a real demand. If we do not allow this “boom” to wane, we will continue to see nothing but the strengthening of already established scientific hierarchies while denying researchers who are thirsty to make the world a better place a chance. Is that what we truly want?