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Monday, March 17, 2014

Billionaires Playing Larger Role in Financing Science

The New York Times (h/t Instapundit) reports:
American science, long a source of national power and pride, is increasingly becoming a private enterprise.

In Washington, budget cuts have left the nation’s research complex reeling. Labs are closing. Scientists are being laid off. Projects are being put on the shelf, especially in the risky, freewheeling realm of basic research. Yet from Silicon Valley to Wall Street, science philanthropy is hot, as many of the richest Americans seek to reinvent themselves as patrons of social progress through science research.

The result is a new calculus of influence and priorities that the scientific community views with a mix of gratitude and trepidation.

“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.”
Glenn Reynolds points out that this was the norm prior to WWII. It was WWII and the ensuing Cold War that motivated government research.

It may be better that funding for science return to the private sector, for several reasons. First, a lot of government research is for military purposes--ultimately a black hole of knowledge. I'm not saying that we shouldn't have military R&D programs, but that it seems that a lot of knowledge developed never seems to find the light of day. For instance, I have a co-worker whose father worked for the NSA. His father apparently published several important computer science papers, but they are all classified. That is knowledge that will never be shared, to inspire ideas in other areas of mathematics and computer science. Perhaps this is more a theoretical concern, but it makes you wonder where we would be, technologically speaking, if the secret research had been able to spread into the larger scientific and technical community.

There is also the problem of government backed research carrying a greater imprimatur of "truth" or veracity than it deserves. One example of this is global warming. There seems to have been substantial misfeasance in the research, but when NASA or the UN say something, people tend to trust it more than if it had come from a private think tank. Conversely, private funding of research may introduce some desperately needed skepticism toward certain scientific conclusions because potential bias will be more easily discerned.

It would remove a certain amount of politics from science, since certain scientific predispositions tend to receive funding. For instance, we don't see the government funding scientists investigating findings or theories that disprove or minimize global warming.

My concern, of course, is that the federal money that would have gone to scientific research will merely be added to the continual stream of social welfare payments.


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