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Friday, September 23, 2016

Privatizing science research, part 2

American science funding is unsustainable. It must be freed from its dependence on government.

L 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:

  1. Patients: For medical research, patients are the primary beneficiaries. Thus, medical research can be thought of as a form of health insurance. Unfortunately, in the USA, the government is taking over the insurance industry, so insurance funding would not accomplish the goal of escaping the evil tentacles of government.
  2. Nations: Countries derive status from making important discoveries. This creates good will which they can spend to counteract the resentment that comes from their normal activities, like spying on their citizens and bombing each other.
  3. The general public: Most people who donate to science use it as a tax deduction, so donations reduce to tax funding. But in general the public is uninterested in science and knows little or nothing about it.
  4. Schools: Universities need a constant supply of new knowledge to teach to students. Students pay to learn the new discoveries because it benefits their careers. However, once again the government is planning to take over the universities through taxpayer funding of tuition. Thus tuition is not a viable source of funding.
  5. Corporations: Research benefits corporations. Can a contract be arranged whereby a consortium of industries pay for research? For this to work we'd need a way to benefit preferentially those who are willing to pay.

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:

  1. Move science from universities to independent research institutes. This is starting to happen already, because of the problems of doing research at universities.
  2. Research institutes should give paid seminars to industry clients, university professors, and other interested parties, under a CDA. Those in industry, who would benefit the most from new discoveries, are willing to pay thousands of dollars per lecture to learn about them as soon as possible, because it gives them a competitive edge.
  3. Industry already subsidizes institutes with intellectual property licensing, but they would benefit even more from contracts that would give them access to preliminary results. These results are typically available months before peer-review and publication, so this would not interfere with free exchange of knowledge. Topics like toxicology research and product testing, which could be influenced by pressure, would be forbidden.
  4. Eliminate paid journals. I am a research scientist but I haven't been inside a library since 1999. My collection of papers resides entirely on my computer. Paid journals are obsolete, and many are parasitical: they survive by charging scientists to publish their work, then charge the same scientists again to access it.
  5. Eliminate taxes on corporations altogether. If government's true function is to benefit the country (instead of benefiting itself) this is a no-brainer. While we wait patiently for it to happen, at the very least contracts between industry and institutes should be tax-deductible.

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

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