Is he the Adam Smith of the new century, or just another scientist on u soapbox? The jury is still out, but Cambridge biochemist Dr. Terence Kealy is garnering worldwide attention with his controversial new book The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, in which he argues convincingly that science flourishes under the free market system and that government funding of research can actually impede economic growth.
Kealy cites several pieces of historical evidence to back his case. He points out that the agricultural and industrial revolutions took place in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a time when governments had no policy of supporting scientific research or development. Moreover, when the British government did begin such funding after World War I, with massive increases there after, there was a conspicuous lack of improvement in the country's rate of growth. However, after British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began reducing government investment in university research in the 1980s, which critics at the time bemoaned as detrimental to the economy, a curious thing happened: Britain actually recovered from the slump it was in at the time.
The phenomenon is apparently not unique to Britain, The U.S. government maintained a policy of non-interference in, and non-funding of, scientific research until 1940, when it took an abrupt turn and invested $20 million in basic science. The price tag then jumped to $3 billion in just a decade and continues to grow, but the fundamental rates of economic growth have not shown any corresponding increase. On the other side of the world, Japan was investing the lowest percentage of government resources in scientific research in the second half of the twentieth century, yet grew' the fastest of all countries.
Who should fund science if government doesn't? Research and development, a wider category of research than basic science, is generally supported by the private sector. lf the government were to back away, private foundations and corporate sponsors would likely take up the slack. Not so fast, say critics of private funding, who argue that corporate-sponsored research is overly biased; case in point, the so-called findings by tobacco companies on the effects of nicotine. But while corporate meddling certainly does occur, science clearly benefits from private sponsorship, and government funding has been known to suddenly dry up, leaving huge scientific projects bereft of cash, as happened during the Superconducting Super Collider project in 1993.
The question of the funding of university research, however, raises important ethical questions connected to the issue of academic freedom. Institutions of higher learning should be characterized by a plurality and independence of thought, which in turn probably requires a plurality of funders and interests. Universities overly dependent on a single sponsor, be it government or private, are much more likely to bow to the wishes of that sponsor and thus sometimes to distort their findings. This would surely be bad not only for science but for the economy as well. Perhaps the safest route is to promote a multiplicity of funding sources in the marketplace of competing ideas.