Thursday, August 09, 2007

Funding Pure and Applied Science

I found this golden oldie while I was looking to verify something for another post. Maybe it's not fair to pick on what ideologues were saying ten years ago, but if there's an organization that hoists petards willy-nilly, it's Cato. I read some of their shit for a short time, when I was more sympathetic (shortly before this essay was hoisted), but it takes about five forays into their voluminous screed to realize that they endeavor in no reasoning which does not beg the question. Really, choose five random samples and report back. The conclusion is forgone, and from the introduction, it's a weasely path to get to telling us that federal funding is bad and the (allegedly) free market will make this topic just as super as it can make everything else. Throwbacks to the halcyon days of child labor and flaming rivers are a bonus. The reasoning path bears the semblance of logic, but it suffers the doctrinal inability to weight anything properly. You could have an equivalent conversation with a Marxist, and find out how central committees are the solution to all economics. The annoying thing about the glibertarians,* is that they pretend to pragmatism.

Maybe Kealey, the author of that piece, could be forgiven for not being an American, but his case to "End Government Science Funding" rests on three tenuous or contradictory ideas:

  1. companies that engage in "pure research" do well, even though the research is risky

  2. private people really do fund science, especially the rich, who really, really do feel a need to give

  3. government-funded research doesn't always produce products
He commits a lot of sins in his breezy piece of tendentious shit: industrial research in 1997 was much different than that of the 1960s, and he ignores academia entirely. His first and third point contradict one another. Risky research, he says, is good when spread out among a big rich company that can get the rare reward, but the risk is what makes government funding for it bad. (Anyone want to tackle the second point?)

I suspect that investment philosophy has more complicated lineage than government tax policy, but in the late twentieth century, enormous private laboratories started drying up--the culture was less long-term, and more geared to satisfying the bottom line, presumably for shareholders. It's a Cato wet dream of ownership, but it's been a capricious sort of investiture: no one's in for the long haul, and fundamental R&D (pure science) is all but toppled in those places as a result of selling out to the gods of productivity. Bell Labs is gone. Westinghouse labs is gone. Xerox and Kodak are going. Work still gets done under the industry mantle, but it's applied: what can get to product in a short time frame? The best case for pure corporate research is the pharmaceutical industry, but that is pretty applied too, and Pharma's relationship with government is pretty intense.

It's fine (and logical) that companies should do more applied science than government-funded work, but someone needs to take the long view--there's only so much innovation to be found in new ways to sell the same old crap. The fundamental research still needs to be done, and it makes for the government to do the investing. Insurance models work out best across a statistically large set of members, and I've mentioned before that an all-inclusive single-payer model ends up looking (counterintuitively to me) like the best option under this framework. Funding of risky (pure) scientific research can be looked at as spreading the risks of no product and sunk costs to the entire population, which will benefit as a whole from a robust technical economy.

As it stands, the government is supportive and open about turning pure science into patents and profit for ambitious citizens. If you go to an academic chemistry or biology department, you'll find a bunch of professors churning furiously around trying to spin small startup businesses off at every opportunity, begging for venture capital, all based on knowledge and experience attained on the government's dime. It's by far the healthiest and purest entrepreneurial environment that I've personally encountered. That pure initial research is rarely funded through the private sector, and it costs a lot to hire us credentialed science dudes, while grad students are essentially free.

I'm less sanguine about government investment in the private sector (much as I like having a job), but that's mostly because so much of it comes through the Department of Defense. There isn't a whole lot of pure research coming through those initiatives, believe me, and the big chunks go to the big contractors. Worse, with all that cool and lethal technology, people just itch to use it.

The marked change in DoD funding vehicles in the past five years is toward the more applied research (yup, even DARPA). Understandable maybe, in the middle of a war, but it's made my job prospects appear that much more bleak. It's ridiculously competitive these days to get those dollars these days, and you pretty much need to go in with the problem solved when you walk in, and Raytheon (or whichever big contractor) on your arm doesn't hurt. They want someone who's proven they can already produce the idea too.

In non-defense sectors, scientific funding seem to be relatively unbuggered, however. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (who publish the prestigious Science journal) list some historical data of funding trends in a series of excellent graphs. They're interesting to peruse. As a percentage of GDP, science funding has been decreasing gradually since the seventies, but has been rising just as slightly in terms of constant dollars. I was surprised to learn that science funding dropped precipitously during the Clinton years, and has been brought back up to pace under the tenure of the Bush administration. The DoD portion of that budget has even dropped slightly under Bush. (Another reason my job looks so bleak these days.)

You can blame the Bush gang for subverting results it disagrees with (upcoming post), for naïve pet projects (though the Mars mission is a small chunk of the overall pie), and for any number of their policies. But they're doing the right thing with research funding. I'm as surprised as you are.


*You'll note the rhetorical distinction maybe. There are smart libertarians. I've no end of respect for the likes of Jim Henley, IOZ, Julian Sanchez, et al., etc., and I get behind many of their views. Maybe Cato even has honest contributors, but I haven't read them.


Archaeopteryx said...

See, I told you that you're a leftist pinko commie.

hipparchia said...

no no no! it's nonletthal technology! magic rays that make you feel like your skin is on fire! harmless but blinding lasers!

utoxslzf: you toxic sleaze factory

Keifus said...

Arch, you might be right, but do you have to use those words?

Hipp, I have never worked on intentionally lethal (or even less-lethal) technology. But toxic sleaze, oh yeah. (Maybe more detail later, I'll see how next week goes...)

Archaeopteryx said...