Commentary

Does the Federal Government Have a Monopoly on Science?

By Aaron Steelman
January 14, 1998

Earlier this month President Clinton’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS issued a harshly worded “progress report” complaining about “inadequate” federal AIDS research funding and a “lack of progress in the federal response to AIDS.” The publisher of a magazine for people suffering from AIDS said of the Clinton administration, “They just don’t give a damn.”

Such critics begin with the presumption that the federal government must do something about AIDS, because nobody else will. But to date government AIDS researchers have produced precious little in the way of results. Does it nonetheless make sense to regard government research as the best hope for progress against the disease?

Hardly. Even a cursory look at the historical record leads one to the opposite conclusion. The private sector has a long and distinguished record in advancing scientific research. It has been responsible for some of the most significant scientific breakthroughs this century:

· The discovery of the structure of DNA was largely a product of private action. Physician O. T. Avery became the first person to learn that DNA was the molecule of inheritance while working on a cure for pneumonia at the privately funded Rockefeller Institute in the 1940s. “Once Avery had discovered the importance of DNA,” writes author Terence Kealey, “the subsequent development of molecular biology was inevitable — thus the discovery of the structure of DNA in 1953 became a race between three teams, Linus Pauling’s in CalTech, Watson and Crick in Cambridge, and Franklin and Wilkins in London.”

· The Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental in bringing penicillin to the market as well. Penicillin had been discovered in 1929 by English scientist Alexander Fleming, but most scientists — including Fleming — believed that it was an unstable substance and doubted its medicinal value. Nevertheless, Oxford researchers Howard Florey and Ernst Chain continued to explore the practical applications of penicillin, and in early 1939 they applied to the government-run Medical Research Council in England for funding. Their request was rejected, so they turned to the Rockefeller Foundation.


Today private research groups face an important competitor — the federal government — which is increasingly crowding out investment and philanthropic giving.


Florey, writes historian Gwyn Macfarlane, “decided to appeal to them for a grant that would support his penicillin research for three years. He asked, in November 1939, for £1,670 per annum for salaries and recurrent expenses and £1,000 for the initial cost of equipment, and he got even more than he asked for, since the Foundation gave him grants for five years.” Less than two years later, Chain and Florey had completed their work and Merck was producing penicillin for both the English and the American markets. Chain and Florey shared the Nobel Prize with Fleming in 1945.

· While polio has nearly been eradicated in the United States, it once was a very serious problem. In the early 1950s, on average, more than 300 new cases were reported each week; for some weeks in the summer, that figure rose to more than 2,500. In a poll during that period, more than 60 percent of Americans said that they knew someone afflicted with the disease. Thanks to the work of private organizations like the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, however, victims of polio received medical care, and beginning in the mid-1950s nearly all Americans would be protected from the disease by vaccine. In her book Patenting the Sun: Polio and the Salk Vaccine, Jane S. Smith reports, “Operating without an endowment or a wealthy patron, the National Foundation raised enough money every year to pay for the hospital and rehabilitation costs of any polio patient who needed help.” Moreover, she states, “In its heyday in the early 1950s the privately supported and administered Foundation spent ten times as much on polio research as the tax-supported National Institutes of Health.” Such funding led, in 1954, to the development of a vaccine effective against all three varieties of the polio virus.

The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was not an atypical organization; in the first quarter of this century more than 75 groups were established to raise money to combat specific diseases. For example, the National Tuberculosis Association, the American Cancer Society, the National Society for Crippled Children (now the Easter Seal Society) and the American Heart Association all emerged between 1904 and 1924, years before the federal government became heavily involved in health issues and medical research.

The private sector is more than capable of conducting important and valuable scientific research. And if given the chance, the private sector likely would produce tangible results in AIDS research, as well. Today, however, private research groups face an important competitor — the federal government — which is increasingly crowding out investment and philanthropic giving. If Americans wish to see a renaissance of scientific discovery and innovation — and progress in the battle against AIDS — they should look to the private sector and quit expecting so much from the public sector.

Aaron Steelman is staff writer at the Cato Institute.