Should Government Fund Science? January 1, 2009

Should Government Fund Science?

***Comments are now allowed on this post***

(This is a guest post by Trina Hoaks. Trina is the Atheist Examiner at

For some time I was convinced that it was important for our government to support the sciences by way of funding. Among other things, I had seen pleas from the likes of Michael J. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, imploring people to support politicians who fight for government funding of science.

Admittedly, I didn’t give the issue much consideration and nonchalantly threw my hat in the ring of support. However, because I really had never explored the issue on my own, as it didn’t seem to touch my life directly, it was never anything about which I had any strong opinions. The extent of my concern was to say, “Yeah, it’s a good idea.” I really didn’t think it through much more than that because, on the surface, it made sense.

Then, I read something recently written by Frank Tipler (who, in general, I take with a grain of salt), which made me wonder if, perhaps, I had rushed my opinion without considering all sides of the issue.

In response to a request from William Katz, of Urgent Agenda, to express his views on the global-warming controversy (more on that topic later), Tipler discussed what can be described as the perversion of science when government becomes involved financially.

He contended:

… We had better science, and a more rapid advance of science, in the early part of the 20th century when there was no centralized government funding for science…

He went on to say:

Science is an economic good like everything else, and it is very bad for production of high quality goods for the government to control the means of production…

So, here I am, exploring the aspects of the issue of government funding for scientific exploration. I absolutely believe that scientific research is important and necessary for a number of reasons, but as it stands now, I am stuck somewhere in the middle wondering which is worse: to have a government funded science initiative or to have science that has no government funding at all.

Any thoughts?

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  • I don’t think government should exist at all. if people were just not jackasses, we wouldn’t need a big whole thing to keep people behaving.

    but let us assume the government must exist.

    science shouldn’t be funded by the goven’ment the same way religion shouldn’t be endorsed or denied by it. It chooses which to support and publicize, and which to deny aid and not tell anyone about. Whichever benefit the gov get more money, whichever don’t, or threaten the gov, get shitcanned. I don’t think there should be a government sponsored space program, but a management board, controlling what others do in the atmosphere and close area to earth if nothing else. obviously we need to protect our planet and the people and animals on it, but humanity should have more free reign over the planet on which we dwell for the time being.

    my opinion though

  • Jonsi

    Let’s not use the fallacy of appealing to an authority here: just because Tipler is a very good cosmological physicist does not make him credible at all regarding climate change. He is NOT an atmospheric physicist. Similarly, we shouldn’t listen to James Hansen just because he is James Hansen, but the National Academy of Sciences and the AGU represent a consensus of thousands.

    It’s a completely subjective statement to say we had better science and a more rapid advance in the early 20th century. By what standards? We were working on different problems then and it is a vacuous statement relating to government funding.

    To address the question: I feel government funding of science is necessary for the common good, but what is not necessary is a PhD or the way PhDs are trained to do science (from the standpoint of applying that training to industry). The blame there falls on the ivory tower. The demand for scientists is high, and since scientists will flock to a pot of money, in that sense the government does control the means of production, but the majority of scientists don’t pursue academic science careers after advanced degrees, and the majority of all science is still privately done, it just has a different audience and scope. Government funding produces the scientists ineffectively, not the science.

  • Tim Wright

    I used to do research at Universities and have a bit of experience”in the system” so to say. One of problems is that there isn’t enough money to do all the research. This means that scientists are constantly applying for grants and, therefore, giving the grant giving body has quite a lot of power over the types of research that is done. That applies for corporate funding and for government funding.

    A better solution than to stop all government funding for research (and, therefore, close many of the universities across my country anyway) would be to fund all scientists to a basic amount. This would let them do research, attend a conference or two a year, and not need to worry so much about getting grants. However, they could always apply for grants for the more expensive research programs. This would reduce much of the worry of “how am I going to fund these masters and Ph.D. students” that we currently have!

    (or, at least, we used to have – I left research for a life in industry several years ago. That option is always open for Computer Science researchers!)

  • A.Ou

    You mustn’t forget NASA. The only reason why the aerospace industry exists as it does today is that the government was there to fund the fundamental R&D. Otherwise, the risk associated with starting a new industry (at the time) as well as the enormous setbacks NASA initially experienced would have scared off most cautious executives, and progress would have been much slower had the government not become involved.

    Don’t also forget the U.S. Geological Survey, and all the other often-overlooked government agencies.

    A responsible government is a valuable investor.

  • The playing field in science has changed since the early 20th century. I don’t buy the argument. I think that this kind of complaint is driven by the same people who really wanted to see flying cars, but are disappointed. Huge advances have been made in science, especially in the area of communications, and much of that has been driven by technology developed for the US military. That funding came from the DoD. We’ve also had huge advances in biology and medicine, which were also funded from government sources.

    Another problem with this argument is the assumption that private funding will cover all disciplines of science. True, it will cover technology, computing, medicine, and several other vital fields. But what about anthropology? Basic research in biology (and I’m not talking about pharmaceutical research; I’m talking basic research)? Private companies tend to fund applied research more than basic research.

    Aside from that, do we really need another anti-centralized-government straw man? At the end of the day, research is research, and we need it. If all of it is left to private funding, research is yet another crucial component of modern society that is left to market forces. Private funding is dwindling right now for that very reason. The last thing science needs is to be undercut even further by removing government sources of income.

  • My father-in-law is a senior meteorologist with the National Weather Service. Through NOAA, they’re able to do all kinds of climate and atmospheric research, as well as environmental research. I’d hate to think of what kinds of garbage we’d be stuck with if the likes of were in charge of something as important as the data the collect and the research they conduct.

    The problem with moving certain types of research to the private sector is that of profitability. I highly doubt that organizations such as CERN would be able to do the kinds of things they do without the support and financing from governments. If science were solely the domain of private enterprise, I can hardly think of an industry where the kinds of funding it takes to develop the technology necessary to send a person to the moon would be seen as viable. Fiscally, space is a gigantic loss. Scientifically, it’s essential and invaluable. (yes, I realize the contributions of private enterprise to the space race, et al, but not a single one of the contributors had or arguably would spearhead such a massive undertaking)

    I do agree that the government should be limited in what restrictions it places on research, absolutely. It should also be made difficult to reduce funding based on results, for reasons that should be obvious. My two cents.

  • Aj

    Argh, the stupid, it hurts. Tipler’s rant doesn’t have any reasoning or evidence to refute or affirm. It’s slightly ironic that this is the year that Garrett Lisi, a homeless surfer, managed to publish a paper on a possible unified theory, something Einstein himself was trying to do. If an Einstein was around now how would we know? Einstein’s papers published in 1905 were either ignored or rejected. There’s also a fundamental difference between theoretical physics and bloody biology for fucks sake. Last time I checked money getting pumped into particle physics in the form of particle accelerators were very fruitful. Lets not forget that this was written not by a skeptic, but by a denialist, perhaps not as crazy as evolution denialists but nearly as much, and it’s for the best they don’t get funding or tenure.

    Should governments fund science? Yes. Should governments decide what the funding is used for? No. Problem solved. Set up some ethics boards but make sure there’s no Catholics on them. Don’t governments have science advisors or aren’t there “societies” of some sort?

  • Zar

    I think Tipler is looking at things in a grossly oversimplified way of government=bad, private sector=good. Profit doesn’t necessarily serve the greater good.

    Some private funding is good, and some government funding is good. The end.

  • I can answer this at great length – my education is in philosophy and history of science, and my wife is a working scientist.

    First, a little general critique of the idea that modern science isn’t “advancing as fast” as science in the early 20th century – that’s just not really possible to meaningfully measure. What constitutes a substantial advance or new field? How do you measure it? It is my opinion that the l9th and 20th centuries created three fields which are almost definitive of science in the minds of people: evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics.

    These three theories are what science is to most people. It is also perceived by non-scientists that no paradigm change has happened, therefore science is “slowing down”, somehow. I, myself, believe the cause of that is that, as time progresses, our theories will become more robust, closer to being “true” and thus needing less fixing. The reason there hasn’t been a “new evolution”, a paradigm shift of the magnitude of evolution, is because evolution is, well, largely . . . right and true. Oh, sure, it has been refined and will continue to be refined for a very long time to come. But, at the root, it’s true. So, what someone like Tipler sees as a “slowdown” in science – as measured in paradigm shifts and “revolutions” – is actually a fulfillment of science. We’re getting more things right, and when they’re right, you can’t much improve on it.

    Which is not to say that there won’t be new scientific revolutions. There will be, of course, unless humans are not, ourselves, seed intelligences – it’s an open question where humans are smart enough to continually improve our intelligence; it’s possible we’ll hit some sort of intellectual ceiling and no matter how hard we try we won’t be able to understand any more than we will understand at that time. I think we’re really far away from that point, assuming there *is* such a point for us, but it also suggests another reason why even if one accepts that science isn’t improving as fast as is used to there might be reasons unrelated to how science if funded.

    So, as sub-points A and B to issue one, Tipler’s article is weak because A) revolutionary science is not inherently better than normal science – that scientific revolutions aren’t happening all the time isn’t a failing and B) he doesn’t even attempt to discussion alternate reasons why science might have changed between then and now.

    Because, as point two, science has definitely changed. Not all of it is for the better. I feel, for instance, that quantum mechanics has has the hell studied out of it because it’s useful for nuclear weapons (this isn’t controversial if you’ve had any contact with actual physics departments in universities), and it is perverse that almost all science is funded for primarily military reasons. The National Science Foundation and DARPA work cheek and jowl to fund projects that have, primarily, national security implications. Thus, billions is spent, annually, on space science (think satellites) and quantum (think bombs and computers) but relativity – which is in many ways a much stronger theory than quantum physics – gets about 1% of funding. I’m not really fond of that, certainly, but science has changed. I mean, my wife, f’rex, does theory work but to do it, she needs banks of supercomputers. She’s doing really sweet work if you’re an astrophysicist studying Jupiter or the sun’s weather, and sweeter if you’re doing oceanography about temperature shifts in the Arctic, but to do her job she’s got to have access to supercomputers. Even theorists need millions of dollars to do their work. This is true in every field of science. The guys in the 19th and early 20th centuries were “lucky” in the sense that could do their science with inexpensive tools relative to the wealth of their culture. But, alas, all the cheap research has been done. Gone are the days when guys like Plank needed a magnet and some iron filings to do their research – now we need satellites and particle beam accelerators. Even the theorists need supercomputers.

    The idea that the private sector will food this bill any better than the government is, shall we say, deeply unproven. Indeed, what is proven is quite a bit the opposite. Corporations don’t like research. It’s really expensive and there’s no guarantee that it’ll go anywhere. Like, biotech start-ups – probably the field that the corporate sector has most embraced as a contrary model to publicly funded science – have basically stopped happening because there’s no easy way to get DNA strands into the cells of living beings. I mean, with plants and single celled organisms, well, it can be done because even though the process kills 99% of the cells they can culture the remaining 1%. You kill 99% of the cells of a human and they die. Thus, no meaningful gene therapy. We can’t get the fixes to the cells. The work into solving this problem has been ongoing for decades and no one has had any breakthroughs – there’s no reason to suspect we won’t be at it for another 20 years, or maybe 200, before it’s solved. Lots of research is like that, it ends in failure and is useful not in what it does but in what it eliminated, and you can’t run a for-profit company like that. So, really, private companies and corporations don’t get involved in research until the heavy lifting has been done by someone else, usually the government. (You can see this in the mapping of the human genome. It wasn’t until it became obvious that it was working and profitable before business go involved in a kind of scientific land grab to patent genes in a sick little bit of cynical profiteering – but it wasn’t until the government footed the bill enough to demonstrate that it was profitable that it happened; this happens with virtually all technology, by the way, there’s hardly a single new technology that wasn’t funded in its infancy by the government – cars, planes, TV and radio, computers, the Internet, you just about name it and it was funded by the government before business came along.)

    So, given that science is expensive and will keep on getting more expensive – it’s currently so expensive that no individual can fund it, no matter how passionate, and it’s impossible to predict which technologies will take off so there’s little business incentive to do in-depth research – I can’t think who else can and will fund it.

    Which is not to say that government funded science is unalloyed goodness. It’s not. Like I said, almost all science is driven primarily by military concerns. It’s an insult to science for it to be appended to the military like that, not to mention very dangerous – in the end, they’re looking to weaponize everything. I think that’s scary. But where else can you get the money? Science, as a whole, is obviously one of the most benevolent undertakings in history. Even with the funding perverted by weaponeers, these men and women are doing more good than just about any other institution that’s ever existed. Hell, throw out the qualifiers. But it could be done better. I’d like for science funding to be a much bigger part of our public policy agenda than it is, now. I’d like the purse strings to be taken away from the military and put into the hands of the people – I think we’d see a big change in priorities, and even if we didn’t, well, at least it’d be the people deciding rather than a bunch of colonels in the Pentagon.

  • Loren Petrich

    I think that Chris Bradley is right on an important point: most of the “easy” discoveries have already been made, and we are stuck with having to make the more difficult ones. Advancing technology does alleviate that difficulty somewhat, but far from all the way.

    And some important areas of science were in a primitive state in the first half of the 20th cy. and developed rapidly afterwards, like planetary science and molecular biology.

    Planetary science is a rather obvious one; spacecraft were able to observe other planets with MUCH greater resolution than ground-based telescopes.

    And molecular biology? Around 1950, biologists were starting to use X-ray crystallography to determine the structures of biomolecules, and Watson and Crick got to work on DNA in 1951. DNA was already suspected of being the molecule of heredity as the result of Oswald Avery’s 1944 experiments and similar ones, and if it was, then how would it do that work? Watson and Crick hoped to help answer that question.

  • J. J. Ramsey

    Chris Bradley:

    Corporations don’t like research. It’s really expensive and there’s no guarantee that it’ll go anywhere.

    Indeed. That’s also why this bit,

    Science is an economic good like everything else, and it is very bad for production of high quality goods for the government to control the means of production…

    is misleading. The market may be great at finding ways of distributing soup cans and setting prices for them, but science is not a soup can. Really, it’s misleading to even think of it as a service that can be rented out like, say, plumbing, even though pieces of work done as part of science can be.

  • Beowulff

    Part of it is in the wording. “Government funding” sounds a lot worse to many people than “public funding” does. The government is just the people we gave the job to facilitate the transfer of public funds to where they will benefit the public most.

    Other than a handful of philanthropic billionaires, the only viable alternative to public funding is corporate funding. There are only a limited number of corporations that have enough of an R&D budget to fund fundamental research in academia.

    By the way: if you’re worried for the position of power that government could get over academia, worry harder over the position of power these corporations get: we can at least influence the government directly, and the government at least should have the public interest in mind.

    Since governments in general have been cutting budgets, academia is now relying more and more on corporate funding. This causes problems, however. In general, corporations are far more interested in research that has direct applications and relatively short term returns. Very few companies have the guts (or the money) to do fundamental research, just for the sake of getting new knowledge that doesn’t necessarily yield any practical application, and even if it does, only after years of more research. Many universities, therefore, are already experiencing a clear shift from fundamental research to applied research, because the latter is just so much easier to get funding for.

    It’s not that difficult to argue that a shift away from fundamental research could cause scientific stagnation on the long term. Therefore, society as a whole will benefit when there is sufficient fundamental research going on.

    Since there is a clear advantage of having fundamental research in a society, instead of applied research only, and since it seems unlikely that individual corporations or individual citizens will have the incentives and means to support fundamental research, public funding is a good idea. (Note: because of this, it might be a good idea to limit public funding to fundamental research only)

    The fact that you don’t trust your own government to handle the responsibilities of regulating public funding in the interest of the actual public is a completely different problem. It doesn’t mean you should stop public funding, it just means you need to fix your government. Support the Change Congress initiative, for instance.

  • Hasn’t the Free Market Delusion been fatally wounded by this latest recession/depression. I’m all for free market solutions, where they can work, but lets not pretend that the Manhattan Project or the Apollo Program would ever have existed without government funding. The Hubble Space Telescope certainly offers little in the way of monetary returns on its investment, so what private company would fund it?

  • Before I start I want to add a caveat – I am a scientist (a biologist,if anyone cares), and I am partially funded by government sources. So obviously there is a little bias in what I write…

    We had better science, and a more rapid advance of science, in the early part of the 20th century when there was no centralized government funding for science

    This is a common claim, but one which anyone with any knowledge of the history of science knows is false.

    There was a lot of really, really bad science in the good ol’ days. It just doesn’t seem that way because we simply don’t learn about the bad stuff – we only learn about what was done right.

    Examples abound – Newton spent more time/money researching pressing scientific issues like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, than he did physics. Strangely enough, we still read/use his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica and the laws of physics he uncovered; but the angel stuff has fallen into disuse…

    There are thousands of other examples – like the belief in the spontaneous generation of pathogens, transmutation of elements, the non-existence of atoms, lamarkian evolution, etc. All of these scientific concepts had long histories as scientific dogma, all were positions held by large numbers of scientists at one time or another, and all had some degree of evidence “proving” them correct.

    The old scientists also had the advantage that they were doing the easy stuff – for example, a table-top microscope which today sells for a few hundred bucks used to be enough to make significant scientific advances. Today, similar advancements require microscopes costing hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. The reason is simple – most of what could be done with simple tools has already been done; to progress further requires better, more powerful tools.

    With that old microscope, Robert Hook discovered cells. With that new microscope, I can dissect the cell into little pieces and uncover its inner workings….

    Likewise, total scientific output has advanced greatly over time. While the major mechanism of scientific publication has changed since the good ol’ days (from books to peer-reviewed journal articles), the total amount of scientific output – both per scientist and humanity-wide – is much higher today than it was in the past.

    The effects of this are obvious – today we make about as much scientific advancement per decade as we used to per century.

    That huge increase in output is due to three major factors – standardization and systemization of scientific research methods, funding from government and private organizations, and the expansion of education to the masses.

    The removal of government funding would be disastrous for continued scientific advances. The US has undergone government funding cuts over the last decade, and has seen as a result a precipitous decline in their productivity. The rest of the world has increased funding over the last decade – the end result; the US has gone from the most productive producer of new science to a below-average producer of science.

    Now imagine if all that money went away.


  • Eric

    This is a no brainer, of course science should be funded. This is like asking if we should have a fire department. Research is expensive and with a few notable exceptions (Bell Labs) businesses don’t like funding pure research. I’m not saying applied science and engineering are bad. But pure research is the foundation of all others. Our standard of living is dependent on our level of technology, which comes from scientific research.

  • There are, I think, two major arguments against having science be funded entirely by private enterprise.

    One: When science is funded by private enterprise, the only research that gets done is research that will be directly financially profitable, in the short or medium term, for the company doing the research. But a lot of useful and important research that advances humanity’s welfare and understanding, or that may have long-term benefits, doesn’t fall into that category. (Who’s going to do astronomy if all science is privately funded? Not to mention medical research for relatively rare illnesses.)

    Two: It’s been well- documented that research that’s privately funded tends to be biased in the direction the funders want it to go. Even when it’s done by very well- intentioned researchers who are trying hard to be objective.

    I’m not saying there should be no privately- funded scientific research at all. But it is greatly to the benefit of us all for there to be scientific research funded by people with no financial stake in the outcome.

  • Speaking as a scientist I can say with some degree of certainty that science does benefit from government involvement. While it of course should not be the sole source of funds given the possibility of ideological influences on scientific research it does provide one essential service.

    Private industry can and does provide massive funds for scientific research, but it does so with an eye towards profit. That’s not a bad thing at all, but it limits the scope of science, and its very usefulness. Basic research that is not limited towards a profit goal (curing a disease for instance) sometimes comes up with things that later turn out to be extremely useful. One example off the top of my head is that we’ve recently learned that intelligence may not require the highly specialized and centralized neural pathways of higher mammals. Basic research into Octopuses, that as invertebrates have “looser” nervous systems has shown them to be vastly more intelligent than was initially thought. Basic research into fruit flies has given us an unbelievable amount of information about development and genetics, the list goes on and on. In the extremely competitive world of profit-driven scientific research, time and viability constraints can eliminate basic research studies that can yield great results in time. That’s where government, not as constrained by a bottom line, comes in.

    Other good reasons for government funding? How about moral ones? Not all diseases are “sexy” to study. Malaria, Cholera, Chagas, diseases that affect mainly very poor people are given a lot less attention that the suffering of men who can’t get it up anymore. Government can step in (and does) to fund research into these diseases, often in conjunction with private companies.

  • There are two important points to consider here:

    1. If all research is undertaken my corporations or private interests, then only research which is profitable or fits the private interests will be funded. This encourages a short term approach to research and a lot of viagra research while harder to solve problems are neglected.

    2. A government should act in the interest of its people and can be held accountable for its decisions and actions and does not necessarily expect a profitable return on its funding. This allows governments to fund long term research such as AIDS and cancer research which could save lives.

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