I thank everyone for their responses to my essay
. Let me in turn respond to them.
Victoria Harden makes a strong defence for the public funding of health research
, yet the improvements in health we have seen in the industrialized world have been occurring for nearly 200 years now, and when a person charts those improvements against the initiation of significant government funding of health research (which in the UK, for example, was launched in 1913 with the creation of the Medical Research Council) one simply does not see any deflection in the long-term trends in morbidity and mortality. So much health research continues to be supported by independent foundations (Wellcome Trust, Bill and Melinda Gates etc) to say nothing of that funded by private companies (the drug companies have huge budgets for R&D) that a person is forced to conclude that in aggregate there simply is no evidence that public research money has made any impact. After all, it is interesting how little benefit the former Soviet bloc’s generously funded research programs yielded in terms of health care. I don’t think that the sort of anecdotal approach that a historian like Victoria Harden may be forced to take can show anything short of crowding out (but see below.)
Patrick Michaels makes the point that government funding has introduced perverse incentives
and has damaged the intellectual autonomy of the universities. On both points he is so obviously right that I can only invoke historical evidence to support him. So, for example, one of the godfathers of the federal support of research was Henry Wallace (one of FDR’s Vice Presidents and, unexpectedly, Marxist in his sympathies) and he complained that the greatest opposition to his plans came from the scientists themselves, who wanted to protect their autonomy. “In the past,” he wrote, “most scientists were trained in laissez faire classical economics” so he found them “a handicap rather than a help” in his campaigns for government funding. Meanwhile, the universities were so determined to protect their autonomy that they delayed for five years the launching of the National Science Foundation, from 1945 to 1950.
David Guston makes a different set of points
: he says in effect that, okay, perhaps in narrow economic terms science may not be a public good, but there are nonetheless good national reasons other than defence why a democratic government might legitimately want or need to fund science, particularly in support of particular, perhaps infrastructural, missions. In this he was adumbrated by Victoria Harden who made the point that drug companies’ published clinical trials cannot always be trusted. On these issues it is hard to say categorically that Harden and Guston are wrong. I believe that under laissez faire, philanthropic and foundation sectors would indeed meet all our research needs (so, for example, in his 1876 Report to the Franklin Institute, William Sellers explained that no government in America need set technical standards because “the government of France has always been in the habit of interfering with the private habits of people but the American concept of government [is that the setting of technical standards such as screw threads could safely be entrusted to a free people].” Nonetheless I do agree that we can’t leave research solely to the for-profit sector and so, if for whatever reason the philanthropic sector fails to provide, then government would have to intervene, but the problem is that there is good evidence for the government funding of philanthropic research crowding out private philanthropic research, so public research even if philanthropically orientated should not be entered into lightly.
So let me conclude thus: I believe the evidence is clear that in narrow economic terms government-funded research is not a public good, and I agree that it cannot be entrusted solely to the for-profit sector, but I also believe that foundations and charities can be entrusted with most if not all of society’s needs for philanthropic research, so if governments choose under a democratic mandate to fund science, they must be careful not to simply crowd out the private philanthropic money that would otherwise have arisen.