Friday, July 7, 2017


Government-funded scientific research is generally a bad deal for taxpayers but a good deal for government officials who choose to feed at the public trough. To no avail, erstwhile Sen. William Proxmire, Wisconsin Democrat, acquired notoriety with Golden Fleece Awards for inane or extravagant government spending, for instance, an $84,000 study of love conducted by the National Science Foundation. At one time, NASA supported searching for extraterrestrial intelligence—arguably to assist pre-emptive interstellar or intergalactic warfare.

President Donald Trump was elected to “drain the swamp” of bad deals for taxpayers. He submitted a budget outline last March that would have slashed scientific research at agencies like the National Institutes of Health, for example, ending funding for the Fogarty Center, which supports medical research abroad.

Congressional Republicans, who have mastered the art of crony capitalism, predictably rebuffed the President’s outline. Indeed, political drum majors, Congressman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) lead a congressional march to hike spending on scientific research where Mr. Trump wanted cuts in an omnibus funding bill for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2017.

The case for government funded science is unconvincing. Members of Congress and the White House think and act with partisan motives. They could care less about funding science for its own sake. Thus, government funded science comes with strings— a variation of the golden rule. He who has the gold dictates the scientific discovery. Thus, with the backing of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, Trofim Lysenko decreed the inheritability of acquired characteristics.

Further, scientists with or without government funding are human. They are driven by the same ulterior motives as everyone else. They labor tirelessly for money, fame, or status. To paraphrase Adam Smith in Wealth of Nations,” I have never known much good done by those who affected to conduct scientific research for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among scientists, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it.”

Writing in Scientific American last year, Nathan Myhrvoid, founder of Microsoft Research and currently head of Intellectual Ventures in Bellevue, Washington, argued that “basic scientific research” would shrivel or die without government funding. If that were true, basic science would still be in its swaddling clothes. Government funding, however, is a relatively recent phenomenon, but scientific progress is not. Think of ancient Greece and the discoveries of Euclid, Archimedes, and Democritus. They are not aberrations.

Titans in the Science Hall of Fame made their hallmark discoveries or inventions without government funding, including Sir Isaac Newton, William Harvey, Samuel Morse, Charles Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Curiae, and Albert Einstein. The prospects of profit, patents, or fame fueled their midnight lucubrations. British science writer Matt Ridley contends in his recent book, The Evolution of Everything, that government distorts the natural evolution of science and invention. Basic research flourishes at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study funded predominantly by private benefactors.

Government funded scientific research is as vulnerable to error as is research funded by private sources with ulterior motives. A congressional committee recently exposed shoddy government-funded research by the Ramazzini Institute in Italy. It wrongly concluded that sucralose, the main ingredient of Splenda, caused cancer in laboratory mice.

There are exceptions to every wise rule. A presumption against government-funded scientific research should yield in cases of national security or law enforcement like the Manhattan Project. The foremost responsibilities of federal government are to protect us from foreign or domestic aggression or predation. And scientific research is a necessary and proper means of advancing those ends.

The exceptions, however, have become the rule. Mr. Trump was elected to end that inversion. Congress remains a stumbling block.

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