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Friday, September 23, 2016
Privatizing science research, part 2American science funding is unsustainable. It must be freed from its dependence on government.
ast week I talked about how to make basic science research self-sustaining and independent of government funding. The problem with last week's idea is that it would take a long time. So this week I will talk about some alternatives.
The challenge is that government funding is limited because of the well known problem of bloat: as government gets bigger, economic efficiency approaches zero. This happens because the overhead of paying for tax collectors, imprisoning tax violators, and buying votes increases linearly, while taxes are drawn from an exponentially diminishing source as productive citizens are taxed and regulated into bankruptcy.
Universities, where most basic research is carried out, exhibit the same trend. Due to the proliferation of bureaucracy, academic researchers spend more time writing grants, attending meetings, and listening to indoctrination seminars than curing diseases. Most of the actual work is done by unsupervised students, leading to reduced quality.
Second, those who pay for the research—the taxpayers—have no choice in the matter. Funding research with money extracted by force from law-abiding citizens is thus unethical. We scientists are doing our research with stolen money.
Third, government funding is unsustainable. When panic grips the country because 57,345,000 old people are pouring out into the streets, burning down drugstores and stealing cribbage boards, wooden canes and noise-canceling earplugs because Social Security has gone bankrupt, few will care much about funding to study the mating habits of Vampyroteuthis infernalis.
The dilemma is that scientific research works best with complete openness and free exchange of ideas. This disrupts the normal market mechanism as applied to knowledge.
One alternative, the industrial model, doesn't work. Industry is geared toward developing products, and they have no incentive to carry out good basic research. The reverse is true in academia: academics have no incentive to developing or marketing physical products.
Nevertheless they are producing a product—knowledge—that is valuable to the general public. What we need is a way to couple that to the market. Entrepreneurs call this a business plan.
Let's examine the potential markets:
From this list we can see how government has its claws in almost every aspect of the economy. The only viable non-government market that still exists is industry. Industry not only benefits from new discoveries, it also benefits by being able to employ new workers who understand the new discoveries. So maybe we can build on that.
Here is one possible solution:
All well and good, you might say, but what about research that has no practical applications, like cosmology, particle physics, archaeology, and advanced golf theory?
Even if government has to subsidize these types of research, all government programs should be subjected to referendum so taxpayers can choose whether they are worth paying for. If government is us, as we're often told, we should have a say in what we pay for.
Unfortunately, in our society, the poor will vote for more science funding, not because they love knowledge, but in order to take money away from the rich. The rich will vote for more science funding in the hopes of more government contracts. We vote for it in the hopes of getting more grants. Everyone supports science, but always, it seems, for the wrong reason. We should ask ourselves: can an institution funded this way really ever escape corruption?
Last edited oct 15 2016, 2:01 pm