Is Science Investment Always a Good Thing?

Is Science Investment Always a Good Thing?
Profile photo of Logan Albright

shrimptreadmillThe worship of science is a peculiar feature of our age, especially given the incredibly broad and non-specific nature of the term, and the vast quantitative and qualitative differences in  outcomes from various types of research within the scientific disciplines.

To a certain sort of modern personality, reverence for science is an unchallenged and unchallengeable religion that has the unfortunate effect of both conveying a sense of smug superiority and, rather ironically, of retarding critical thinking

It is people of this mindset who call for unlimited, indiscriminate public funding for research, and who make the most noise when said funding fails to be provided. This noise is currently taking the form of indignant cries that some scientists are retiring from their field because there are too many of them and not enough people willing to buy what they are selling. The following comes from a particularly anecdotal and emotionally manipulative piece from the government-funded National Public Radio:

“There are no national statistics about how many people are giving up on academic science, but an NPR analysis of NIH data found that 3,400 scientists lost their sustaining grants between 2012 and 2013. Some will eventually get new funding, others will retire; but others… …will just give up.”

One could write a similar article about any overcrowded field. “People are being forced out of the coffee business because there are too many suppliers and too little demand.” It may sound sad and shocking, especially if you’re the sort of person who likes science (for the record, I like science tremendously, but don’t suffer from the delusion that everything anyone in a white coat does is necessarily worthwhile.) But the statistics are misleading. Science is not in crisis, it is simply experiencing a readjustment to balance out supply and demand, a process that is not helped by the public propaganda campaign to incentivize “STEM” education, when there are already too many unemployed researches out there.

Now, I have no doubt that many will make the argument that general scientific research is unique among other fields, because it builds up a body of knowledge from which innovations ultimately flow, but without immediate returns on investment. There is truth in this, and it is not an unreasonable thing to say, but corporate investment is not actually as shortsighted as people believe it to be. Pharmaceutical companies undertake decades long research projects all the time in anticipation of future profits. Any good company that expects to be around for a while will have some general researchers on staff to make sure their technology and techniques stay cutting edge, and to attempt to out innovate the competitor.

What the people at NPR cannot understand or accept is the possibility that funding for some research is simply not the best or most efficient use of resources. They assume that all science is worth spending on, no matter how overcrowded the field becomes and no matter how inane the research appears to be. If we have 100,000 freshly graduated researchers, they believe, we should fund 100,000 research projects. If we have a million, we should fund a million. Whether or not this research is comparatively more valuable than other uses of the funds is not considered, it is taken for granted.

Of course, in a sense all research is valuable. That is not in question. What is in question is how that value compares to other uses for society’s resources. Science, like every other good, has a certain degree of diminishing marginal returns. At some point, the nth research project doesn’t add enough value to justify funding, and in a free market, that’s the point where funding goes away. Government, on the other hand, pays no attention to such calculations, continually calling for more funding irrespective of value added.

The beauty of private investment is that visionary entrepreneurs and savvy businessmen comb through all of society’s detritus in search of opportunity. Those that are good at this, and they are few, direct their dollars towards the most valuable projects, not only for themselves, but for everyone. They are then rewarded for this by receiving more dollars so they can do it all over again. In this way, the good investments – the ones that benefit the world and make it a better place – are encouraged, while the less useful projects struggle for recognition. If someone wants to conduct a study on how well shrimps perform on treadmills, no one will stop them, but investors will be hard to come by.

The science worshipers want infinite funding, paid for by the hardworking taxpayers, so that they can continue to do whatever they want without the need to earn an honest wage by providing a socially valuable service like everyone else has to. This is fueled by the elitist notion that these people are somehow special, chosen to perform a holy calling, and woe unto him that would dare interfere.

It’s nonsense. Science is a trade like any other, and like any other, it deserves to be subject to the rigors of competition to promote the good and weed out the bad. The free market’s efficient allocation of resources towards their first-best use will do more for scientific innovation than all the public funding in the world.

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Profile photo of Logan Albright

Logan Albright is a writer and economist in Washington, DC.

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