Government Funding of Science: Inherently Susceptible to Junk and Superstition.
I recently discovered the thoroughly enjoyable podcast put out by Skepticality magazine, and was browsing through some past ‘casts, when I stumbled across an interview (in Podcast #59) with Lori Lipman-Brown, a lobbyist in the employ of the Secular Coalition of America. The interview was pretty wide ranging, but at one point it focused on a battle in the U.S. House of Representatives concerning stem cell research. She recounted how House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had attempted to use an interpretation of Christian theology to buttress her position. She criticized Nancy Pelosi as follows:
“We were flabbergasted when we heard her start saying that ‘stem cells are a gift from God’ and that ‘stemcell research is biblically based’ in her arguments. I mean she was going to vote the right way, but this was her argument to get other people to vote the right way. And the reason this is really horrific is-our argument is whether or not you allow stem cell research to progress shouldn’t be based on your theology, because if it is just a competition between whose theology is right. I mean President Bush, when he vetoes these bills, he bases it on God and the Bible also and his interpretation. … Making this a competition of whose theology wins is not appropriate. What you need to do is to say ‘Look this is science, this is not – we can’t have the government imposing anyone’s theology – you know, this is research, this is not about what someone’s religious belief is.” – I transcribed this myself – any deviation from what was actually said is a mistake rather than malice – tarran
In effect, she was opposed to a minority being able to block some bit of government funding for research based on moral objections rooted in superstitious beliefs.
This seems a reasonable position at first blush, but is, in fact, a highly immoral and, frankly impossible proposition. Let us turn to our old friends the Nazis for a demonstration, since they make for great reductio ad absurdum argumentation. Imagine if the Nazi party had managed to win a majority in the U.S. House. A representative from the Illinois delegation rises up and proposes a bill that in order advance scientific knowledge on the subject of hypothermia, he wants the NSF to oversee research using human subjects who are subjected to extremes of temperatures and stressed to the point of death. When challenged about the morality of killing people, the legislator dismissively says “they’re just Jews, it’s OK”. When the non-Nazi legislators protest that “Jews are human too,” the Nazi legislator could argue that the non-Nazis are trying to impose their twisted expansive morality upon the Nazi majority, who were elected fair and square by a majority of the American people!
This is not an impossible scenario: the Nazis did conduct these gruesome experiments, and we living in the modern era definitely benefit from their research. The systematic understanding developed by the Nazis of hypothermia has saved countless lives in the subsequent years. It is even possible that at this point more people have been saved as a result of the research than were killed in conducting it. However, I don’t think anyone reading this, were they confronted with the question of initiating such a research project, would accept such an argument. Our moral decision that murdering human beings is so wrong that public money should not be spent on it is just that, a moral decision. The fact that it is almost universally held by the entire population does not change the fact that we are applying a personal moral judgment to public policy.
The fact here is that when the government funds research into stem-cells, it is offensive to a large segment of people who are forced to pay for it. These people feel it is immoral. Now, if they tried to outlaw stem-cell research from being conducted at all, one could make the case that they are imposing their morality on everyone else. However, it is the people who are demanding that taxpayers be forced to fund this research who are imposing their morality upon the rest. Those who find stem-cell research to be immoral are being forced to support it. This is just as outrageous as when atheists are forced to take a loyalty oath that includes the words “under God” while attending government schools.
This is, of course, an inevitable conflict when taxes are levied to pay for some charity like scientific research. Somebody somewhere is going to see their hard-earned money spent on things that they don’t approve of.
Moreover, I am puzzled by the support shown by many in the “skeptical” community toward government funding of science. This community is dedicated to stamping out “junk science”, which is a quite worthy goal. However public funding of science is far more junk-science friendly than non governmental sources. One only need to look at the Soviet Union’s support for Lysankoism and dismissal of Einstein’s theory of relativity as a ‘bourgeois theory’ to see some extreme examples of this. The reason why is quite ably explained in a working paper written by W. N. Butos and T. J. McQuade, Government and Science: A Dangerous Liason?:
Science, in the absence of outside intervention, is a decentralized system of social interaction operating according to generally understood rules, the basis of which are the institutions of publication and citation. There is no controlling authority, because power is distributed (not necessarily evenly, but still widely) across the population of participants. The institutional arrangements of science explicitly cater to the self-interest of all of the participants. The process of interaction constrained by these arrangements results in observable side-effects stabilized by negative feedback – the corpus of scientific knowledge and the generally acknowledged reputations of participating scientists. This stabilization is
not such as to preclude variation of the side-effects in response to environmental changes. And these relatively stable side-effects provide not only general and nondiscriminatory benefits even to nonparticipants but also the incentive for a positive feedback effect on participation in the system.
But science in and of itself generates no revenue and so the expenses associated with scientific pursuits must be funded by other sources. Since very few scientists are independently wealthy, it is common for them to be employed as teachers in academic institutions, receiving both a salary for personal maintenance and some financial support for the operational expenses attendant to scientific activity. Scientists can also be supported directly by private donors or by corporations. And they can be financed through grants of public funds. It is not surprising that these different funding sources should have different effects on the practice of science, and an examination of such effects leads directly to a consideration of intervention in science, for it is through funding that organizations outside of science can most easily affect the actions of scientists, introduce new incentives, exercise control, and alter the adaptive characteristics of the knowledge-generating system as a whole.
• Incentive effects: Under government science incentives matter, just as they would markets. These altered incentives will affect the institutions involved in the administration of science, including funding agencies recipient institutions, and also how scientists behave. Funding agencies are not autonomous, but operate as a bureaucracy within the government sector. Their incentives emanate, at least in par from the legislative and the executive branches, thereby establishing a political dynamic for explaining their behavior along any number of margins, including the areas of science receiving funding, institutional recipients, and its geographic disbursement. There is also a symmetry of interests between the funding agencies, including the military, and recipient institutions (industry and universities). This carries implications for the dynamics of government science because it creates a potentially powerful lobbying nexus whose interests are geared to sustaining and expanding government funding.
• Big Player effects: The source structure of science funding matters in the sense that, while an environment with a small number of large funders provides the potential for those desiring to control the direction (or, in the extreme, even the content) of science to have systemic effects, whereas in an environment with a large number of small funders the effects of individually power-oriented operations are much more likely to be localized and constrained. This effect is the analog of the Big Player phenomenon in markets. Following Koppl and Yeager (1996), government is a Big Player in science whose behavior is capable of dominating the flow of signals guiding the direction and intensity of scientific research. The magnitude of government’s influence exposes science to self-reinforcing path dependent processes that may be analogous to herding and bubbles in financial markets. However, while in markets the prospect of self-correction is strong because underlying market realities sooner or later prevail, science has no analog of resource constraints for its products and has to rely only on its internal coherence as established by its own critical procedures. Big Player effects are known to produce herding and bubbles in financial markets. The corollary in science is the funding opportunities provided by government for designated areas of research, such as AIDS or environmental issues. Because such government-funded research enthusiasms are inextricably linked to the political process, the presumption must be that the direction of research is driven by the same incentives and constraints as any other politically- based funding program. This suggests that the basis for such funding is arbitrary and no more or less justifiable than any other possible use of taxpayer funds. Moreover, the development of the direction of research itself is likely to be sustainable only for as long as the funding continues, after which new funding objectives will replace previous ones.35 Government funding, in this sense, is not too unlike Congressional Omnibus Transportation Bills: a predictable amount of funding will occur, but for what and for whom is always up for grabs.
• Problems of boom and bust: In recognizing that government science operates along a significant political dimension, we propose that the path of science will also reflect the shifting funding priorities of government institutions, both elected and otherwise. It seems clear that the level of government intervention in science can be explained in part by “public choice” considerations. But economists have long understood that the cyclical activity or dynamic stability of the economy reflects the effect credit policies of central bankers and very possibly the electoral cycles of representative democracies. In economics we can think of fiscal policy’s effect on the average level of economic activity as opposed to monetary policy’s affect on the dynamic stability of the system.
In proposing a similar kind of distinction for analyzing government intervention in science, our discussion considers such intervention in the context of the dynamic stability of science. Windfall funding for science is like artificially cheap credit for business – the immediate effect is a growth in investment (including employment) and, with a lag, output. The general quality of the output is not necessarily compromised, although by making it possible for people who would otherwise work elsewhere to pursue a scientific career the tendency may be to lower the average quality of the practitioners. What may be noticeable is an increase the “far-outness” of the investigations pursued – in the sense of the resulting papers being of little or no interest to other researchers and generating minimal, if any, citations and follow-on publications. One would expect to see, in the distribution of government science funding, bursts of heavy funding in some areas, cutbacks or neglect in others, with the identities of these areas changing as the political winds change direction.36 When the Russians threaten to lead the way into space, astronautics and space science is favored, building up an impressive edifice of research capability and trained scientists ready to push the discipline further. When the Japanese threaten to develop a “fifth-generation” computer, attention switches to computer science and the growth in space science funding becomes insufficient to maintain the talent already developed. When the Japanese are no longer seen as a danger to national prestige, political attention wanders away from computer science and its newer PhDs find employment in the area of research they have been trained for much harder than expected to come by. It is a scenario of localized booms and busts – “science cycles” – accompanied by a real disruption of individual lives and waste of talent and resources similar to that characteristic of business cycles.
The problem with temporarily unconstrained funding is that it fosters unstable growth. Lavish funding results in more scientists being trained as the recipients of funds require assistants to pursue the funded projects; in turn, these assistants, if they are to become researchers in their own right will require funding of their own.37 Private funding sources naturally limit the growth of the system of science in a way that has a relatively direct connection to the perceived usefulness of the science itself to other scientists, and this sort of stabilized growth is likely to be more durable and productive than spurts of growth and retrenchment based on factors external to science.
The danger to quality of output and integrity of behavior comes with the downturns in funding, when the rate of increase of funding ceases to keep pace with the structural growth fostered by prior funding. At this point, scientists are in competition with each other not merely for scientific reputation but for their very livelihood.
•Problems of bureaucracy: Concentration of funding in large government-financed organizations brings to bear the usual symptoms of bureaucracy – success measured by budget rather than results, unwillingness to take risks which may subject the organization and its managers to criticism, and a concentration on areas of research likely to be politically popular. And, as pointed out by Greenberg, bureaucratic control of the funding process has led to conservatism (“calcification”, as he puts it). While this may not affect the general quality of research work, it will tend to channel scientists seeking funding into more conservative, more obviously “acceptable” lines of inquiry, and will make it more difficult for mavericks to be funded. Again, bureaucratic effects are competently discussed in Greenberg (2001).
Bias-free research is impossible. The incentives that produce junk science cannot be eliminated. Rather we would be better off seeking to limit the damage that people who chose to produce junk science can do. That can best be accomplished by having the government to return the money taken from taxpayers to fund scientific research to the taxpayers, and get out of the game entirely. There is a significant demand for scientific research, so it will continue. But under a regime of voluntary donations, scientists could work with those who wish fund stem-cell research while having to face far less opposition to their work.