Public funding for science?

Terence Kealey has been arguing against public funding of science. Is it efficient to fund science with government dollars? He argues that when science is mostly funded by large government agencies, other funding sources are effectively crowded out. He has two good historical example. Firstly, while France massively invested in research and academic institutions in the 17th and 18th centuries, the United Kingdom, and not France, gave birth to the industrial revolution and the accompanying scientific surge. Secondly, the United States was leading the world in technological innovation starting in the 19th century whereas it had a comparative underdeveloped academic system, and no public research funding.

In short, whereas there is a correlation between wealth and scientific output, there is no evidence that public science funding generates economic growth. Moreover, government funding results in a concentration of power in the hands of few politicians. Trusting politicians with almost all of the research funding is a tad insane. It is even crazier to think that politicians have science in mind when allocating funding.

Kealey argues that for every dollar invested by the government, more than a dollar is withdrawn from research by private investors. While I don’t know whether this is true, I do know that I have no idea how I would go about asking for private funding, outside government programs, for my research. How do you go about it? Do you post a video on, say, kickstarter?

Note: I am a research grant recipient. The system has generally been good to me.

16 thoughts on “Public funding for science?”

  1. I remember having this discussion in the past, with someone who lived in the golden days of Bell Labs.

    He was arguing that the best research labs come from monopolies, not from the governments. Bell Labs was strong when AT&T was a monopoly. Microsoft Research is also strong today. IBM Research was also strong(er) during its monopoly days.

    On the other hand, government-funded research gave birth to the Internet, and built the foundation for the space program. GPS and satellite communications are the results of that research funding that aimed to send a man on the moon. So…

  2. @Ipeirotis

    The open question is whether we would have the Internet and the GPS had the government let the private sector deal with “innovation”.

    It is hard to answer such a question because of the claimed crowding out effect. Basically, once the military had funded the Internet, and the government helped it spread… independent competitors were unlikely to thrive.

    @Downes

    I’m no expert in the industrial revolution, but Clark and Jacks make a good case that “English possession of coal reserves made a negligible contribution to Industrial Revolution incomes.” See
    http://gpih.ucdavis.edu/files/Clark_Jacks.pdf

    Ruskhoff claims that the Renaissance was actually just a counterproductive concentration of power and wealth among the few. The Middle Ages ended with a wealthy merchant class in France, and the nobility found ways to crush it and exploit it during the renaissance. So this wealth we remember was artificial (or reflected the wealth of the few). In truth, the English merchant class meanwhile was doing a lot better… and thus, when new technology came around, they were better able to exploit it… whereas the merchant class in France was pined down.

    And yes, thanks for the compliment regarding my spam test. That’s private innovation at work! (No public funding!!!)

  3. It’s worth noting that the industrial revolution took hold in coal-producing areas. Britain, and then Germany. France, coal-poor, wasn’t really able to recover.

    Up to then then, government-funded scienmtific research made France the centre of knowledge and learning from the 1600s through after the Napoleonic era.

    p.s. love the spam test.

  4. @Paul

    what do you do with Einstein?

    According to Carayol and Matt (2006), funding has little to do with research productivity. As far as I can tell, Einstein, at least during the early years, was not known for managing large research grants.

    (Of course, you do need some minimal funding… you can’t possibly do research with lasers if you can’t afford a laser.)

    And without public funding, would physics still have attracted him or would he have looked for safer job then trying to find somebody to pay him to think about Brownian motion and light waves?

    I think there is strong evidence that Einstein was not into Physics for the funding, or even for the good jobs. Was there even much public funding for science back then? I think not.

    So, we don’t need public funding to get the new Einstein.

    (On a side note, the early Einstein, before he moved to Princeton, would almost surely not have been eligible for research grants. Period. And once he moved to Princeton, he no longer needed the research grants as I’m sure people were throwing money at him.)

    Plus, if it was just a matter of research, France should have been able to catch up almost immediately through industrial espionage.

    There was clearly nothing particularly difficult to “steal”. I think it was more a matter of momentum. Once the UK got started, other countries could catch up, in time… but the UK had gained economic and technological leadership for decades.

    The real question is whether you gain more momentum when you let industry do the innovation, or whether you need the government to push it along.

  5. @Paul

    If all universities were privately funded, would the position of professor be perceived as a safe, tenured one where you can do research?

    Most professors fifty years ago were not actively engaged in publicly funded research. It is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of universities.

    In Canada and the USA, most of the universities are already private. MIT, Harvard, Stanford… they are all private universities.

    While he didn’t need a grant to think his thoughts, would a physics professorship in a strict free market have held the same allure?

    He was hired by Princeton University which is private. The job market for professors, at least in Canada and the USA is as free a market as… say… the market for NBA players. It is certainly more of a free market than the job market for medical doctors or lawyers where there are many more restrictions. I suspect it was even more of a free market in Einstein’s era.

    Very often at the end you can see where things could have been made better. (…) Thus, followers can easily wind up with better technology than the pioneer.

    If you have built it once, you can see your mistakes, but it is unclear than an outsider would be able to derive quickly the same insights.

    If it was so easy, then many companies would copy and surpass Apple. Yet, they can’t. All you get are junk PCs from the likes of Dell. They are unable or unwilling to improve.

  6. @Paul

    All good points, but I think there is a difference between public universities, and publicly funded research. Einstein may have sought a professorship, but he wasn’t after a research grant.

    We built and sustain public universities so that they would teach kids, not so that they would build particle accelerators. The whole focus on publicly funded research came more recently. Kealey says it is counterproductive.

    A secondary question is whether we should have public universities… or, for that matter, universities at all. We could certainly invent (cheaper) alternatives. Bill Gates seems to think so:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2Qg80MVvYs

    And Donald Clark makes a good case against the main teaching activity of these universities (lecturing):

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9e4iFx2Gm0A

    I think that we have to recall that universities were founded around a rare and valuable object, the book. They may be totally obsolete in 2010.

    But this is outside the scope of my tiny blog post.

  7. There’s a different argument for the importance of coal I read in “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” that that article doesn’t address: at the beginning of the industrial revolution England was coal rich, and used it to heat homes, while France was not, and the poor had issues staying warm. Thus French peasants would often spend the winter as a family together in bed. This created a big discrepancy in time available for the sort of individual initiatives that created the industrial revolution. Additionally, it’s important to look at social structures that either allowed or prevented old industries (e.g. hand weavers) from preventing new technologies from displacing them. Plus, if it was just a matter of research, France should have been able to catch up almost immediately through industrial espionage.

    The original question is very tricky, though. For example: what do you do with Einstein? Huge scientific advances on his own time, but do we need the expensive basic research (like the LHC today) to feed the information that private research can build cheaply on? And without public funding, would physics still have attracted him or would he have looked for safer job then trying to find somebody to pay him to think about Brownian motion and light waves?

  8. @Paul

    (…) it’s clear that the public paying smart people to teach and think about problems has proven itself to be a good strategy.

    It seems so, yes. However, these things you mention, electricity, relativity, nuclear power, pasteurization and penicillin, were discovered in a drastically different kind of academia.

    Consider, for example, the Web, arguably one of the most important innovation of the recent past. It was not funded by the government, per se. Berners-Lee was working for a government agency, but he wasn’t hired to build the WWW. Berners-Lee was a consultant. He wasn’t after a professorship.

  9. So there’s two separate types of research funding that perhaps need to be teased apart: Much of government research funding goes into university systems. Professorships and research are strongly linked. If all universities were privately funded, would the position of professor be perceived as a safe, tenured one where you can do research? Or would it be a much more results-focused, lower wage position (or highly variable wage based on research results)? I know nothing about the perception of university work in Europe in the early 20th century, but Einstein was shooting for a professorship in his miracle year. While he didn’t need a grant to think his thoughts, would a physics professorship in a strict free market have held the same allure? Who knows, but my point is that there’s first order effects of a grant being spent on a laser, and second order effects on culture,membership,etc. that may be at least as important.

    On UK vs. France, it’s not clear that being first mover in cutting edge, capital intensive fields is actually an advantage. Once a textile mill is constructed, you need to run it for many years to recoup your costs. Building it the first time, you’re breaking new ground: discovering how well a set of techniques working, paying for the construction crew to learn how to build this structure. Very often at the end you can see where things could have been made better. Research goes on and advances the state of the art. But until the mill is paid off, you’re unlikely to rebuild it. Thus, followers can easily wind up with better technology than the pioneer.

  10. Princeton was late in Einstein’s academic career, and his decision to move to America was very much a product of the rise of Nazism (and thus unlikely to have been a consideration in his earlier years). His early positions (University of Berne, Karl-Ferdinand University) were publicly funded universities. Indeed, the German academic system was based on publicly founded schools. Even modern private schools take in public research grants, and thus are not strictly private. Plus a private school in a mixed system is not necessarily comparable to a strictly private system: it seems unlikely a concept like tenure would arise in a private academic setting, but if it exists at public universities, private universities will need to compete with that in attracting professors. I wasn’t aware the research professor was a new concept, but I suppose at the very least the Maxwells and Galileos demonstrate that research in academia has an illustrious history even without research as an explicit goal.

    As for Apple, we’ll see. Android seems to be doing quite well copying Apple. Indeed, the whole Apple vs. PC fight seemed to have been won by the low-cost copycat hardware companies. During the industrial revolution, other nations paid big bucks to get inventors to set up shop within their borders, or to send important people for tours to learn how factories worked. I suspect it’s a lot easier to figure out what’s going on in a textile mill than a chip foundry (and the idea that your factory floor was something that should be kept a secret wasn’t immediately obvious at the onset of the industrial revolution).

  11. Yup, good discussion. My point in bringing up professors is that, as far as I’m concerned, it’s clear that the public paying smart people to teach and think about problems has proven itself to be a good strategy. Any analysis that considers only money spent on the incidentals of research: the lasers, the reagents, research assistants (e.g., the grants), while ignoring the relative freedom of professors in their work (created by their public funded roles) is leaving out the proven successful piece and thus likely to reach an overly negative conclusion. Can you keep public funded researchers while privitizing the funding for research?

    The major recent advances (electricity, relativity, nuclear power, pasteurization and penicillin if you want to get out of physics) came about within the realm of public funding: maybe they’d have come about in a private research setting, but until a world-changing scientific advance comes out of private research it’s private industry that hasn’t proven itself capable of research, not public research. Industry has proven itself in small scale research, and has a far better track record in putting research into application, but I wouldn’t trade a million application-oriented steps for mastery of electricity.

  12. @Carr

    One the one hand I love the idea (the concept of discovering less recognized talent) but my pessimistic side says that this will have negative consequences.

    Notice that today the bigshots fund their students (who *are* unknowns) and arguably most of the funding goes there. In a sense, government, through research funding, is providing a significant number of implicit fellowships, to get its young citizens to be extensively trained in an area. (Whether this is the best use of taxpayers money, I do not know.)

    If you demand “bigshots” to also fund lesser-known professors in other universities, you increase the power of bigshots too much. (Imagine how many people would suck up to have the “honor” of being “discovered” by bigshot X.)

    At least now the distribution of funds happens through a relatively transparent peer review system. Do you want to assume that all the bigshots will not abuse their power to distribute funds based on their own personal preferences? Yes, the great ones will follow the idea to its spirit and will fund promising and innovative efforts. But what about the ones that may not have the greater society good in mind?

    It is like democracy: It is not perfect. Arguably, having a benevolent dictatorship, with an enlightened leader, is better. But how to ensure that the dictator is benevolent, and not a crazy maniac? (In this case: democracy = peer review grant system, dictatorship = bigshots discover unknown talent)

  13. I propose that some of the established researchers be given large grants with the explicit requirement that most of the grant money be re-distributed widely to a lot of lesser-knowns. Part of the price of becoming a “big fish” or a “playah” should be shouldering some responsibility and risk of incubating up-and-comers.

  14. I do not know whom to believe. There was some news that each $ of government investment creates $2.2 in the economy. I will try to find out the reference. Of course, I too have been benefited by government funding although I have some funding from private industry too.

  15. @Paul: I know it wasn’t a central point of contention, but as someone who follows closely the mobile industry, it is far from clear to me that Android is winning in any meaningful way. See:
    http://www.asymco.com/2010/10/31/making-it-up-in-volume-how-to-view-unit-profitability-vs-volume-in-handsets/ and http://www.asymco.com/2010/11/03/how-much-profit-did-vendors-capture-from-android-powered-phones/ If profit is the name of the game, then I would say that Apple seems to be doing pretty well.

    As for the productivity of public vs private research funding, I would argue that there may be other factors that are just as important, if not more. A lot of the innovation we see at Google comes from its famous “Google 20” (as opposed to its infamous “Google 15”). Google is a private entity with privately-funded research, but it gives its workers one day a week of “full academic freedom” similar to what tenured professors enjoy.

    Giving researchers both the means and the incentives to produce quality research is essential, but the conditions imposed on (and the incentives offered to) the researcher may be more important than where the money comes from.

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