Should governments fund science?

By John Pickering 10/10/2012 12

Just heard Julia Lane – an expat Kiwi and science economist speaking on Radio NZ about science and the economy.  She’s in Christchurch for a debate “Is Science Good for the Economy?” which can be heard tomorrow night as part of the ice fest – see here.

A few nice points she made (my paraphrasing).

  1. There is a challenge for governments in that returns from basic research are long, complex, and often in unexpected directions.  This is often different from government priorities which are focused on short term benefits.
  2. The principle reason for governments to invest in science is for the public good.  If there are high returns expected, then this is a place for the private sector not the government.  So called “failure” or “dry holes” as she called them are examples of public good.  If a private company invests in science that does not work as they hoped, they have no reason to tell the world.  Government funded science will tell the world, thereby enabling all businesses to make better decisions about where not to invest $.
  3. The reasons for government investment should be (in this order) 1) Formation of more science knowledge, 2) social gains (eg cleaner streams), 3) work force effect (trained in science people entering businesses etc), and 4) economic
  4. A current concern is that there is too much emphasis on bean counting (eg science judged on number of publications, patents etc – Take note HRC, Marsden, PBRF (my comment)).
  5. Better funding models seem to be ones that fund individuals and groups rather than projects.  She mentioned the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which has done this very successfully and talked of ANU and Uni Melb who have upped their game doing this.
  6. Nice phrase was that “Science involves creation, transmission and adoption of knowledge through networks of human beings.”  She thinks science funding should emphasise the people and networks.  An example is TNF alpha which was discovered in the 70′s by Dr Lloyd Olds at Sloan Kettering.  A trace study (no reference, sorry) showed that whilst Dr Olds never produced a drug based on TNF alpha, his networks using the knowledge he gained developed billions of dollars worth which have helped millions of people.

Tagged: Economics, funding, Government, Science funding

12 Responses to “Should governments fund science?”

  • I missed listening to the talk so thanks for summarising it

    “If a private company invests in science that does not work as they hoped, they have no reason to tell the world. Government funded science will tell the world, thereby enabling all businesses to make better decisions about where not to invest $.”

    I’m currently reading “Bad Pharma” by Ben Goldacre which proposes that everyone should publish what they learn about what doesn’t work, as this will prevent others from wasting their time and money doing the same.

  • There’s some good research about bias in clinical trial publications towards positive trials. From my own experience it is hard to publish “negative” trials in so called top notch journals, yet there is so much to learn from them – like “don’t do it this way!” I like the attitude of Plos in publishing “good science” irrespective of the perceived value of it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that they reach the audience for the kind of work I do.

  • Opportunity: How about someone set up a journal of:

    “Failed Experiements”.
    “Results failures”.
    “Experiments I’d rather not have done”.
    “S*&t that was unexpected”.
    Which could also be “S*&t Happened”.

    • :)
      There are already some Journals of negative results. Yr last suggestion is seriously useful…it is the unexpected that often provides the ahha moment – if not for the scientist involved, perhaps for someone else.

  • Ah Possum. You are up the wrong tree. JOIR is for the jokes. It would be hard to convince anyone that reading papers in it would set you off on a Bingo Research Topic. ….but….you never know….

  • John, Ross and co

    There are already a few initiatives which are looking at divorcing publications/papers (which are heavily biased towards the publication of positive as opposed to negative results*) from results.

    Results, whether positive or negative, would be placed in an open, accessible repository, thereby allowing lots of cool seconadry analysis to take place, and also preventing people from reinventing that effing round thing over and over again.

    Also, look at initiatives such as f1000 Research :) (

    * I REALLY wish someone had told me when I was studying science that negative results still counted as results. sigh.

  • Nice summary of the commonly promoted arguments for taxpayer funding of science. I suggest the case has not been made. Pl. see:
    a) and

    The key question is this: is it justified for government to forcibly extract taxes from people to fund a particular human activity of particular interest to someone? Particularly science in which significant benefits are privately appropriated by scientists through research publications, career benefits, patents, shares in companies, etc.

    In general, a huge amount of very useful science was conducted in the past without government support. Government funded science has been particularly “dodgy” (e.g. climate change “science”), as can be readily expected through even a cursory analysis of incentives.

    As a general rule, it should be possible for interested citizens (and businesses) to organise their own science.

    It is incorrect to argue that there are public benefits, hence government should fund. There are public benefits of virtually everything we do. Only in very exceptional cases (e.g. creating the first worm hole to the end of the universe) should science expect government support.

    • Thank you Sanjeev. I think in NZ that for myself and many of my colleagues the question “should governments fund science?” has become mute because of low levels of govt funding. I am currently trying to devise a strategy that will result in funding from individuals…similar to how science was conducted 100+ years ago.

  • Sanjeev,

    While Timothy Sandefur’s post “separating science and state” (which you link to above makes some interesting points about how government funding, if poorly organised, can result in issues around coercion etc, I think it fails on a number of points.
    (Also most of his criticisms are avoided if a government commits to providing a certain amount of funding which is administered by an independent body).

    First, I don’t think it adequately answers the question as to who would provide funding, if not the government.
    Corporate funding would be far more manipulative than government funding, one only has to look at the behaviour of some of the pharmaceutical companies to see examples of this.

    If not corporates, then who, rich philanthropists? Do we have enough such people willing to provide funding, and if so, will they control what is researched?

    It seems to me that the only way a reasonable amount of research, particularly blue skies research upon which many later applied technologies will arise, is for the government to fund it and those with an understanding of science to help distribute the funding and, with input from society, decide what should be funded.

    Sandefur’s arguments include straw men and seem driven by the misapprehension that science must always result in something useful. Science not only provides us with useful “things” it improves our understanding of the world around us.

    Some of the strawmen arguments also seem very short sighted and selfish, for example, “a single mom working late in a nightclub in Houston should not be forced to give up part of her earnings to search for the Higgs boson”
    What if the Higgs boson research results in a technology that makes her life easier in the future, saves her child’s life, etc?

    Science is a complex, expensive, unpredictable pursuit. But I think that when it is pursued with the desire to make the world a better place (and surveys show that this is one of the most common reasons scientists carry out research) it is our best hope for the future.

    Indeed having thought aobut thus more, it seems to me that Sandfur’s argument is completely backwards. Where science is funded by individuals or corporations, it is far more likely to be coerced and manipulated than where funding is provided by a government with suitable safeguards in place.

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