Scientific Progress Does Not Require The State
Scientific research is one of those areas that many Statists take for granted should be funded publicly. After all, what is the profit motive behind academic study? Scientific research has always occurred within the private sector, and continues to this day. The development of new technologies, observations of trends, and accurate data in all areas of academic research are essential for successful businesses. Entrepreneurs are in the business of predicting the future, and that can’t be done without accurate data.
Universities are one of the most obvious areas of academic research and study. Universities obviously receive a lot of money from government, both in the form of student aid and research grants. When funding is provided publicly, there is no incentive to produce results. Failure is always blamed on the budget. If that funding was acquired through government, all it takes is a few greased palms to have it increased.
While results can’t always be counted on in science, breakthroughs help to build the credibility of the University. Corporations and individuals already open their check books when Universities with good reputations ask for money. Certainly Harvard, with its $38 billion endowment, would not suffer by losing their public funding. In fact, large endowments are typical of those who receive the biggest portion of the federal R&D budget granted to Universities, with many of these programs relying on tax dollars for 60% of their spending.
It is assumed that these institutions would cease to exist without government intervention, but a reduction or elimination of public funding would simply force them to compete. As long as demand for high quality University education exists, there will be incentive to provide it at a reasonable cost. Universities would be forced to attract more students by offering more return on the investment made in their education.
During my college experience, I could never shake the feeling that I was being fleeced. Not only was I forced to make high tuition payments, but I was required to live in a dorm and buy a cafeteria food plan at approximately four times the market value. For most students, it is easy to accumulate huge amounts of government subsidized debt that plagues them long into adulthood. The current bubble in student loans is very similar to the one that caused the collapse of the housing market in 2008.
Corporations are currently the main driver of scientific advancement. Not only do they contribute to the budgets of educational institutions, they conduct their own R&D themselves. Those on the left will often demonize corporate research as wicked and profit driven. The drive for profits is a double edged sword. If profits are obtained by anticipating demand, invention and innovation, or increasing efficiency, then they only serve to benefit everyone in the economy. If they are obtained through cronyism and manipulation of government power to stifle competition or protect an industry, they harm the public.
The way to prevent corporations from abusing their consumers and the public in their quest for profit is not to regulate and restrict them, but to restrain government. If they are unable to receive preferential treatment from the State, they will be forced to compete with others in the market. The most competitive firms will be those with the most accurate data, the best technology, and the best management of resources.
I’ve often been asked how study of environmental issues could be trusted to corporate funding. Without the incentive to manipulate the EPA, or lobby for barriers to entry for alternative technologies, the problem becomes competition in the market. Resource and energy management are key to success in this arena.
For example, if peak oil is a problem, an oil company with the most accurate data will diversity into other technologies. Those technologies which use less energy and fewer resources are both more lucrative and more environmentally friendly. Consumers typically demand efficient, environmentally friendly, and healthy technologies for both economic and conscientious reasons. Firms that meet these demands will be more successful.
There is also a demand for objective collection and evaluation of data. This can be provided by private consumer advocacy agencies and charities. Rather than relying on tax dollars, a private agency or charity conducting research relies on donations. In order to be successful, they must present a strong track record of spotting and fixing problems. These organizations regulate one another. Once again, competition between groups for donations is dependent on being the most efficient and trustworthy. Charities are meeting a market demand and supplying a product, just like any other corporate entity.
Donations to charity increase when the economy is strong. Healthy, sustainable economic growth benefits all sectors of the economy including scientific research. Americans give more to charity than the citizens of any other nation. We are a nation of philanthropists with a wide range of values. The left often underestimates the popularity of charitable giving, probably because they don’t give very much themselves, instead relying on government to take money from other people.
Often, people assume that technological advancement is driven by science, but the inverse is also true. When the steam engine was invented the understanding of thermodynamics was very limited. Immediately, scientists began studying this relatively new area of physics in order to build a better engine. Without the invention, the scientific advancement would not have taken place. People tinkering in their garages with ideas what aren’t supposed to work sometimes stumble upon technology which advances our understanding of the world around us.
Technology is always what has increased the standard of human life. Without it, we would still be living in caves, huddled together for warmth. Its advancement has allowed society to develop to its current state, and most of that development occurred within the private sector. Because technologies developed by private industry must be sold to willing consumers, the incentive is to produce technologies that benefit people, but that is not typical of the technologies developed by the State.
When the State invests in technology, it is nearly always for the purpose of increasing and centralizing power. Usually, this takes the form of military technology. Governments are in competition for who can produce the most lethal technologies, rather than who can produce the most value. When a rare piece of government technology is found to be of use in the private sector, it always becomes a benefit to humanity, rather than a tool of war. My favorite example of this is the Internet. The net originated as a simple military communications network, but in the hands of private investors blossomed in the greatest tool for the free exchange of ideas that the world as ever known.
Research and the development of new technologies is extremely important, and valued by the public at large. To assume that the massive demand would not be met in a variety of ways without intervention from the State ignores both history, and the way things are currently done. The private sector exists through people making exchanges and decisions based on what they value as individuals. Government can’t get anything done without a majority vote, but the private sector can work wonders with the support of a minority. Without the manipulation of corrupt bureaucrats, resources can be used more efficiently, and innovation can continue to drive the progress of mankind.