August 2013

Adam Smith wrote that the state should do three things. It should repel foreign invasions, protect against harms to person and property — and also it should provide “certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”

It’s often said that one such public good is basic scientific research: We know for sure that research has costs, but the benefits of that research are never certain in advance. Moreover, it is argued, scientific discovery benefits everyone, not merely the firm or individual who performs it. As a result, we get less of it than we would if everyone could be made to pay their fair share. What’s needed, then, is a state subsidy for science.

This month, we consider whether that’s really the case.

Along the way, we’ll consider economic models of public goods, the costs of private research, bias and misconduct in science, and of course the opportunity costs of the matter. Our lead essayist this month, Terence Kealey of the University of Buckingham, argues that scientific research isn’t really a public good at all: private researchers can indeed reap the rewards of the effort, while others cannot do so effectively without a similar investment.

Is he right? We will have response essays this month from Victoria Harden, former chief historian for the National Institutes of Health; Patrick J. Michaels, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for the Study of Science; and David Gustonco-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University.


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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.

Related at Cato

Testimony: Paul C. Knappenberger, congressional filing on the Keystone XL Pipeline, May 7, 2013

Book: Patrick J. Michaels, Climate Coup: Global Warming’s Invasion of Our Government and Our Lives, June 2011

Blog Post: Jim Harper, Open Government Research—-or Maybe Private Ordering, January 6, 2012