Saturday, July 27, 2013

To Liberate Science, End Government Funding of Science

Slate’s Phil Plait recently lamented Canada’s National Research Council for the government agency’s policy of funding only scientific research that has “social or economic value”:

If proposed and immediate economic benefits are the prime factors in choosing what science to fund, then the freedom of this human endeavor will be critically curtailed. It’s draining the passion and heart out of one of the best things we humans do.

By doing this, the Canadian government and the NRC have literally sold out science.

Plait argues that “Basic scientific research is a vast endeavor, and some of it will pay off economically, and some won’t. In almost every case, you cannot know in advance which will do which.” He cites the work of James Clerk Maxwell, whose pioneering 19th Century discoveries on the cutting edge of science were indispensable to the creation of modern communications and other technologies, saying that because the potential economic benefits were not clear at the time, a modern Maxwell might never get funding under Canada’s funding policies.

True enough. But he misses the fundamental issue. The question is not what science the government should fund, but whether government should fund science at all.

When the government pays for something, it will necessarily have to set conditions and standards on how that money will be spent. It will not just hand out money willy-nilly. Scientists will have to apply for funding, and satisfy government officials that their purpose meets the government’s standards (or the political agendas of politicians). As long as government pays, it will determine the direction of scientific research. Given that government bureaucrats are not omniscient—i.e., cannot “know in advance” the myriad unforeseen ways a scientist’s work might “pay off”—and must adopt some kind of basic criteria, where will that leave pioneering researchers like Maxwell; e.g., scientists who buck the “consensus” to explore non-human causes of climate change?

It’s stunning that Plait can talk about “the freedom” of science in the context of government control of science.

More fundamentally, what about the rights of taxpayers who foot the bill? Should they be denied the freedom to spend their own money as they see fit, rather than have their money seized to pay for research purposes they may or may not agree with? Why should scientific research be directed toward purposes favored by Plait? I happen to agree, in principle, with the National Research Council. If the government is going to spend taxpayer money, then the taxpayers should be able to expect some practical benefit in return, rather than have their money thrown at whatever curiosity suits the fancies of whatever scientist.

Despite Plait’s groundless assertion that “we need governments to provide . . . help” for basic research, it is morally up to private individuals to voluntarily decide how much, if any, funding to provide which scientists. The government’s only proper role is to protect individual rights, including “include the protection of intellectual property rights, such as patents for new technological innovations, and technological research insofar as it relates to military applications,” as noted by the Ayn Rand Center.

If Plait truly wants to liberate science, and stand up for freedom, he would call for an end to all tax-funding of science, and become a champion of the separation of science and state.

Related Reading:

The American Right, the Purpose of Government, and the Future of Liberty by Craig Biddle

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