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Who Pays for Truth?
Lea Oksman • Science, science uber-alles
Freshman 2003

Why pay for science?

The only objectives that all members of a society ought be legally obligated to fund are those that benefit the society as a whole; those that benefit individuals can be funded individually. In light of this supposition, let us look at the purposes – or, rather, outcomes – for the sake of which science is funded: medicine, technology, weaponry, and pure knowledge.

Medicine, of the four, seems the least justifiable, as it benefits almost exclusively individuals. Whether a drug exists that cures the Alzheimer’s of someone’s grandmother, or of one’s own grandmother, is a matter of one’s personal concern. Society stands to benefit, to a limited extent, from medical measures against epidemics and other massive health threats. Yet most of the medical research conducted today is aimed at treating diseases that by no means have the effect of impairing an economically or historically significant proportion of the nation’s productive population. Citizens with personal – or religious, or philosophical – stakes in the health of individuals ought to be motivated to contribute to funding such research. But nationwide taxation for research oriented at treating multiple sclerosis or muscular atrophy seems just about as reasonable as taxation for the purposes of ensuring that every woman wear her hair in the way that is most attractive, or that luxurious mansions become affordable to all.

The furnishing of the military complex is quite different. A society is a society while its borders are maintained; with the rare exceptions of very cohesive ethnic or religious groups, it is meaningless to speak of nationhood without territory. Thus protection of the borders and other forms of national security are of concern to all citizens, insofar as being citizens of something is an interest of theirs, and research that helps these goals can be justifiably funded by public taxation.

Much of the research that furthers technology is supported by private industry, and thus we are spared the need to discuss public funding in this case. That fact is important, though, as it suggests that if public funding of healthoriented research were discontinued, successful industrial takeover would take place there as well. In fact, many health industries – pharmaceutical companies, led by a name as big as Merck – are adopting a funding attitude that increasingly approaches that of academic science. Merck supports a wide range of research, ultimately aimed at drug manufacturing, but getting at that goal from the most basic levels. Recently, researchers working at Merck have been encouraged to publish their work, contributing to the academic and industrial scientific communities at large. If we keep in mind that the only way to make better drugs is to keep doing more research, and that exchange of peer-reviewed information is the most crucial component of productive science, it seems that industry is increasingly adopting those aspects of the federal-funding attitude that are most beneficial to research – without the disadvantages of taxation.

Finally, there is the issue of “pure knowledge.” The pursuit of knowledge has throughout history been the task of lone enthusiasts – mostly philosophers, though eventually scientists such as Lavoisier emerged who made discoveries using personal resources in the spare time not claimed by their “real jobs.”

While this work may have affected few contemporaries directly, the whole economic thrust of modern society owes its existence to the scientific mentality - the philosophy of the scientific method, the development of which is a more significant achievement of early scientists than any particular discovery. Thus the intellectual work of “truth-searchers” was, though subtle, the very soil for the growth of culture. Also, it was, and is, a source of pride for the nations in which the work was done.

“Truth-searching” was no mass-production task: it was limited to those specially talented and inspired, and often required the most unpredictable resources. Hence it could only be funded in a no-strings-attached manner; yet this manner of funding would be fraught with the risk presented by those who would use the absence of intervention as an excuse for robbery. Thus management of “truthfunding” by a government bureaucracy was doomed to inefficiency. Moreover, the small number of people involved and the benefit of their work to culture at large would make it unjustifiable.

Today’s society, however, has witnessed drastic changes in science. The existent information base and the amount of information needed to enable one to add to that base are both huge. Accordingly, the modern search for scientific truth is a craft rather than an individual art, and has become a larger occupational niche. Thus it has grown more conducive to public funding – besides developing a much greater need for it. There is no longer the issue of special talent and unpredictability: individuals within a wide range of talent can make valuable contributions, and, though new techniques and tools appear all the time, the bulk of resources needed by scientific laboratories are known and industrially produced.

Some of the arguments cited above against public funding of old-style “truth searching” may still apply. The strength of the scientific community lies to an important extent in numbers, and thus the involvement of people from many countries is crucial. At first glance it seems that the US and other wealthy nations are at a disadvantage, providing most of the resources and the largest output of scientific work. However, since the “product” of pure science – the glory – is less dependent today on individual brilliance than on the sheer number of discoveries, those nations “consume” the “product” of pure science more or less in proportion to their contribution. Thus this argument may be defeated by the specifically modern nature of science.

So it would seem that “truthsearching” science today is in an excellent position to get government funding – it needs the help and it serves a national interest. And indeed, it gets government funding – but only by emphasizing those aspects that are least relevant. In biology and related fields, scientists fall into two categories. Some are genuinely interested in the practical applications of their research; but many others are only somewhat inspired by those prospects. They use them largely as covers sine qua non to get funding for their work, the real aim of which is to push the limits of human knowledge and creativity for the sheer intellectual challenge of it. In other sciences, such as mathematics and theoretical physics, perhaps the most frequent argument for funding is that they contribute to future technologies in unpredictable ways. Yet again, for many scientists involved this is irrelevant.

One may say that by forcibly attaching commercial value to “truth-searching” science enables it to be supported by a free market, and thus liberates the profession from government control. Ironically, however, the commercial “excuse” is used to enable funding by the government.

A triple misdemeanor is thus committed. First, taxes are collected to pay for something that ought to be (and, as the example of Merck demonstrates, can be) individually invested in. Secondly, the taxes are used to support many people who do not care much for that purpose; thus, those taxpayers genuinely interested in health and new technology are cheated. Finally, there occurs a significant free-rider effect for the health and technology industries. Government funding tends to support research that builds up the information base needed to solve practical problems. For instance, it may fund the detailed study of a type of cell that is known to be indirectly implicated in a disease, as contrasted with targeted drug design. Since scientific papers are not patented, private industry obtains a free information base. Thus, taxpayers pay twice – once for the research (and the government bureaucracy), and again for the commercial items.

But shouldn’t there be a way to support a national interest – the increase in a nation’s knowledge and sophistication – without cheating taxpayers and appealing to hypocritical goals that are themselves not national interests? The ultimate solution may be private support of pure scientific research alongside similar donation to medical research (the two, naturally, feed into each other, and in any setting are likely to cooperate in terms of both manpower and funds; it is the hypocrisy in stated purposes that makes this cooperation problematic). It may alternatively be taxation directly for the purposes of increasing intellectual advances.

But the first project at hand is a shift of values – a raising of public awareness as to the value of our nation’s intellectual treasure. Science funding today is handled in a way that presupposes that the only interests of Americans appropriate for the public sphere are material. Though long tradition may make it seem otherwise, this choice of value system is arbitrary; and in every social group there are people who feel that.

Lea Oksman, Managing Editor, is a sophomore in Trumbull College.


 
 

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