Tag: government-funded research

But Don’t We Really Need Government Research?

It’s a valuable public good, research is, isn’t it? Think of where we’d be without it! I mean, it was government research that came up with the Internet, for heaven sake.

That’s a response to the argument I made last week against government funding of scientific research. Moving away from public funding of scientific research would solve the problem of private companies capturing publication spoils from research that taxpayers funded.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency did indeed come up with and popularize the protocol called TCP/IP, which the Internet uses. (Everyone’s use of the protocol really makes the Internet what it is, of course, but nevermind that.)

To take the Internet as proof that the government is a necessary producer of research and innovation, you have to reject the scientific method. Unfortunately, there are rarely controls in public policy. We can’t find out what would have happened if government policy had taken a different course, so we don’t know anything more about who should fund research from the fact that government-funded research has produced good things in the past.

But what would have happened if U.S. public policy had taken a different course? I’ve thought about the impossible-to-answer question of where we would have been without DARPA and other government influences on telecom. What most people don’t consider, I believe, is the restraining influence the government-granted AT&T monopoly had on telecommunications for most of the 20th century. AT&T developed a “Teletypewriter Exchange” system in 1931, for example, but had no need to develop it, there being little or no competitive pressure to do so. (Its patent on attaching devices to phone wires undoubtedly helped as well, preventing anyone using AT&T’s wires for modem service.)

Had there been competition, I suspect that someone would have come up with the idea of packet-switched networks—that’s what the Internet is—before Leonard Kleinrock did in 1962. Kleinrock was a student at MIT—he wasn’t at DARPA, which didn’t get into packet-switching until about 1966. (Then again, MIT was almost certainly awash in government money—specifically military money—so there you go. Maybe we owe all the good things we’ve got to war, but I doubt it.)

My guess—and it’s only that—is that we would have had the Internet some decades earlier if not for government interventions in telecommunications. We probably would have had multiple, competing “Internets,” actually, adopted more slowly than the Internet we got. (In a chapter of Privacy in America: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, I explored how government has accelerated the development of computing and communications, overpowering society’s capacity to adjust, with negative consequences for privacy.)

Support for government-funded research requires one to elide opportunity costs, the things foregone when one thing is chosen. As I said before, tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt. In the absence of taxation to support research, the money would go to the public’s priorities as determined directly by the public in manifold spending and investing decision. Taxation and spending on government research is merely the substitution of centralized, political decision-making for a distributed, direct decision-making system. Its supporters are generally going to be beneficiaries of that system—elites, in short.

Even these beneficiaries of the status quo tend to agree that political decisions about funding for scientific research are warped. The solution to that problem, they’ll say, is fixing the political system—that is, creating a political system that is not so political.

Such a breakthrough is as unlikely as the invention of water that is not wet. Perhaps we can put DARPA on both projects.

Open Government Research—-or Maybe Private Ordering

I came across an interesting information policy scuffle yesterday. It’s worth knowing about in general, and I’ll share my liberconoclastic view of things below.

Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) has introduced a bill called the Research Works Act. The consensus is that it’s meant to keep government-funded research from being published for free. This would keep the publication of that research going through scholarly and scientific journals, neatly maintaining profits for an industry that society might not need while restricting public access to research the U.S. taxpayer paid for. (I have my doubts that the language of the bill actually successfully does that, but that’s inconsequential.)

Here’s a good opponent-side article on the bill. The Association of American Publishers likes the bill.

On a discussion list, Jonathan Band articulated how the business of government-funded research works. It’s helpful to know if you haven’t focused on this area before:

  1. Federal and state governments, directly or indirectly, pay salaries of researchers.
  2. Federal government awards grants for specific research projects. Average NIH grant is around $500,000.
  3. Researcher performs the research and writes a draft article about it.
  4. Researcher submits the draft article to publisher.
  5. Publisher requires the researcher to transfer the copyright in the draft article (for free) before it will touch the draft.
  6. Publisher emails the draft article to other researchers in the field.
  7. These “peers” review the article for free as part of their contribution to the field. (As noted in step 1, their salaries are paid by government.)
  8. The researcher revises the draft in response to the peers’ comments.
  9. Publisher does copy editing and publishes article. Publishers acknowledge that their costs per article are under $5,000.
  10. Publisher sells subscriptions to research libraries, which ultimately are largely government funded.

“In other words,” Band concludes, “the public invests $500,000 in the creation of the article, and the publisher invests under $5,000. Yet, the publisher recoups all the profits from the sale of the article. Profit margins for STM publishers exceed 40%.”

I’m inclined to share these concerns. It appears to be a classic example of regulatory controls—in this case, on information—creating supra-normal rents for a particular business sector.

My conclusion is a little different, though. You see, to me, what Band describes is a situation where researchers—who nobody is paying their own money to hire—are doing research that nobody is paying their own money to produce, which results in journal articles that nobody is paying their own money to read. Privatized profit from government-funded research is as anathema to me as the next open government advocate, but I would solve the problem by letting private ordering decide where research dollars go.

Is this a retrograde argument against research? Who could possibly be against research? Publicly funded research is like nutritious vegetables for a healthy modern society!

Well, I’m against researchers, research, and research results that nobody pays their own money for because it’s demanded by political actors responding to political cues. I would rather have research dollars meted out through private ordering, because then research dollars would go to where they’re most likely to produce the scientific and intellectual gains society actually wants.

Tradeoffs are ineluctable: Money spent on government research takes away from private research, or from other priorities such as reducing debt, or reducing taxes so I can spend my money on things like donating to charity or to the impoverished individual of my choice.