Science in Both the Public and the Private Sector

With respect to public funding for biomedical research and its impact on morbidity and mortality, I must take issue with Terrence Kealey.  In the United States, government funding for science did not expand until after World War II, so its impact must be judged only within the last half century or so.  The polio vaccine, which dramatically lowered morbidity and mortality from polio, was wholly developed in the private sector, with the basic research underlying it—successful cultivation of poliovirus strains—occurring in the late 1940s.  There is no question that the first polio vaccine and antibiotics were developed without federal funding.

Since that time, however, three other vaccines that have had worldwide impact were developed with U.S. government funding: the rubella vaccine that significantly cut birth defects of babies born to mothers who contracted the disease in early pregnancy, the human papilloma vaccine against cervical cancer, and the rotavirus vaccine against childhood diarrhea that annually saves hundreds of thousands of lives of children living in the developing world.  There are numerous other improvements in human health that have flowed from government funding.  I will mention only three more, to avoid sounding like a laundry list: the reduction in heart disease as demonstrated through analyses of the Framingham long-term population study, the dramatic reduction in dental caries as a result of fluoridating civic water supplies, and the Women’s Health Initiative that demonstrated hormone replacement therapy to have heart and stroke risks not previously recognized.  For a long list of other publicly funded biomedical research contributions to health, consult the Selected Research Advances of NIH, 1887-2011.  In addition, see the basic research contributions funded by NIH as catalogued through receipt of Nobel prizes;  the Nobel website will provide details about each award.  Although Professor Kealey may see these as mere facts or anecdotes, I view them as data points building a compelling argument for contributions that were highly unlikely to have been produced by private philanthropy or industry.

I want to address the point made by both Patrick J. Michaels and Terrence Kealey that scientists were so afraid of having their research controlled by government that they resisted government funding.  Indeed, during the legislative process for creating the National Science Foundation and the NIH grants program, scientists resisted government funding until they had negotiated a mechanism for scientists to control decisions about who received the funds—the peer review system.  Peer review has its faults, just like democracy, but it has been studied and criticized and tweaked as may be seen in the long list of internal and external studies you can find on the Office of NIH History’s website.  Scientists may indeed feel compelled to prepare grant proposals in light of whatever biases they perceive in this system.  That is no different, however, from preparing grant proposals in light of the perceived biases of industrial or philanthropic funders whose decisions are made by a single individual or by a small committee.

The real question to me is not whether funding for science must be exclusively private or public, but what sort of balance produces an optimal outcome for society.  With respect to AIDS, for example, the difference between private and public annual contributions is the difference between the ability to marshal millions of dollars and billions of dollars.  And again, as David Guston noted, economic and tax policies that favor industry are, in effect, government support for the entities that produce private philanthropy, and the interests of the private sector cannot be trusted to ensure the greatest good for society. With luck, both private and public institutions will continue to work towards improved human health, and crowding out will not be an issue.


Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Terence Kealey argues that we don’t need public funding for science. Not only are many of the common historical examples of the benefits of public funding false, the economic model of publicly funded scientific research is fundamentally flawed. Empirically, public R&D appears to have a negligible effect on economic growth. Private science is likely to be more responsive to consumers’ needs, and the costs of duplicating it are often high enough that we need not worry about free riders on the discoveries of others.

Response Essays

  • Victoria Harden offers several historical examples of successful funding for public health initiatives. These programs, including the prevention of cholera, basic research on chemical warfare agents and cancer, and the identification of the virus that causes AIDS, might conceivably have happened under purely private auspices. But she finds it implausible that private actors would have responded as quickly or effectively.

  • Patrick J. Michaels discusses the public choice aspects of scientific funding, which introduce systematic bias into research: Scientists need grant money to advance in their careers, and only the government provides it in sufficient quantities. Yet the government’s agenda is never neutral, and the scientists’ agendas tend strongly to fall into line. The result is a consensus built not on scientific fact, but on the alignment of personal interests.

  • David Guston rejects the public goods argument for scientific research. He nonetheless argues that it is essential for any government to conduct such research. Governments are constantly called upon to regulate and adjudicate disputes among scientifically and technologically savvy actors. They are obliged to make laws that take into account scientific laws. Indeed, no one would want to live under a state that predictably failed in these respects.