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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Government Funding of the Sciences

The press paints conservatives as mentally challenged whenever they support candidates whose policy proposals will hurt the conservatives' pocket books. The conservatives, of course, simply view themselves as principled. In the last election, I supported a fiscally conservative candidate who opposed most National Science Foundation funding. This was not, however, a selfless manifestation of principle on my part. I simply assumed that the candidate's anti-NSF position was so far from the mainstream that I could support him (for his generally fiscally conservative stance) without endangering my own (and my colleagues') NSF support. This does raise an obvious question, which I have previously avoided here: what is the proper role of government funding in science? I am too close to this question to give a dispassionate analysis, but at least I can try to frame the discussion.

There are several arguments for funding fundamental science research:
(i) economic,
(ii) infrastructure, and
(iii) national pride.
The economic argument is simple. Even Libertarians agree that it is proper for government to fund public goods. Recall, public goods refer to goods which have the properties that (a) one person's use does not limit another person's use of the good, and (b) it is not practical to restrict access to the good. Fundamental scientific knowledge certainly falls into this category. If I use Maxwell's equations describing electromagnetism, it does not limit your use of these equations. Unless we turn science into a mystery religion guarded by secret rituals and high priests, it is not feasible to charge a toll every time someone applies Maxwell's equations (although rumors abound that this was next on Pelosi's agenda before she lost the majority). Observe that the closer science is to engineering, the less likely the public good label will apply. Science leading to patentable products should violate condition (b), essentially by definition. Hence, the public goods argument applies primarily to basic or fundamental science. These terms are used to describe research aimed at understanding aspects of the nature of existence without an immediate eye to application. Politics tends to reverse the natural order here. Politicians are often more willing to fund research if it has immediate applications, even though such research can be profitably funded (and more deftly guided) by private industry.

Classifying science as a public good makes it eligible for public funding from a conservative perspective, but does not require the government to fund it. The decision to fund science then requires the voters to believe there is a significant benefit to funding science and then to decide, given the amount of money they are willing to surrender to the government in taxes, that science stands sufficiently far forward in the queue of priorities that it should be funded rather than some other programs. There is no doubt that advances in basic science have dramatically changed our lives. Who would prefer to live in a world where electromagnetism, chemistry, and quantum physics were unknown? While the patentable iPad is the product of private industrial research teams, it rests on hundreds of years of basic research.

As a nation, we could decide to be a free rider. Let other nations invest in basic research, and we will wait until our private industries see a profitable application. Let France, Russia, and China pay while we profit. If you feel comfortable with this scenario, imagine a world where we waited for the Nazis and Soviets to keep us up to date on nuclear fission. Without a deep bench of our own scientists, there is no doubt we would rapidly become a second rate economic and military power.

An overlooked feature of the scientific infrastructure is the manner in which scientists communicate up and down the scientific ladder. Industrial scientists study under and frequently communicate with basic scientists, basic science is informed by industrial questions, and industrial scientists benefit, of course, from all progress in basic science. Hi tech industry blooms near research universities. I suppose this latter observation suggests that some funding for basic science might be shoved from the federal to the state government. Many state governments have observed the synergy between the universities and hi tech industries and used this to justify high levels of support for state university systems, but in an age of email and skype, I can't predict how important proximity is in the future of this relationship. If proximity becomes less important, some states may hope to become free riders within the U.S. by defunding their research universities.

On a noneconomic note, I would be saddened if the U.S. was no longer a leader in science. It is fine to invest small change in great Olympic sports teams. If a few dollars more helps secure us Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals, it can be money well spent if there is a budget line for national pride. At least it is a better use of resources than lowering the age of eligibility for Social Security benefits.

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