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There's a place for (some) public science funding

Andrew Baker | The Drum | 20 July 2012
The recent discovery (or near discovery) of the Higgs boson was the culmination of billions of dollars and millions of hours in pursuit of a scientific discovery without an obvious practical application beyond increasing human knowledge.

Despite predicting the boson's existence decades ago, its namesake Professor Peter Higgs has confessed that he has "no idea" what it could be used for.

The combination of massive cost (the Large Hadron Collider cost around $9-10 billion to build) with little obvious commercial application suggests that the quest for the Higgs boson is not something the private sector could have seriously tackled without substantial taxpayer support.

The nature of this kind of research suggests a role for government to spend substantial amounts of taxpayer money on scientific projects with no guaranteed outcomes, commercial or otherwise.

However, this does not mean there is no role for the private sector in this kind of research, nor does it justify the broad gamut of government spending on scientific research, particularly through universities.

The best example of the private sector engaging in the kind of 'blue sky' scientific tradition that includes the quest for the Higgs boson is Bell Laboratories in the United States.

Throughout the 20th century, Bell Labs had been a privately funded research organisation at the forefront of fundamental physics research that led to the development of the transistor and the laser, as well as the discovery of the background radiation from the Big Bang.

Bell Labs is associated with seven Nobel Prizes, most recently in 2009 when, for their contribution to the development of digital photography, former Bell Labs researchers Willard Boyle and George Smith shared the physics prize with Charles Kao.

Sadly, the combination of the global financial crisis, deregulation of the US telecommunications industry (Bell Labs was in part funded by monopoly profits), and new owners with more commercial priorities ended the tradition of 'blue sky' fundamental physics research at Bell Labs in 2008.

The demise of Bell Labs confirms that the corporate sector does not have the patience to finance long-term scientific research despite success in discovery and long-term commercial applications.

This conclusion may support government investments in the Large Hadron Collider, the Square Kilometre Array, the Manhattan Project, the Human Genome Project, and the Hubble Telescope, but it does not justify the myriad projects that taxpayers fund through various scientific grants programs.

One only has to look at the list of university professors from distinguished universities awarded the anti-Nobel Prize, the Ig-Nobel, for serious scientific research to appreciate some of the absurdities published in scientific journals.

For example, the 2004 Ig-Nobel went to a study that showed herrings communicate by farting (or in academic terminology, "burse pulse sounds"). Other university studies that have received awards investigated the physics of hula-hooping, the attraction of mosquitoes to Limburger cheese, the difference in milk production from named and unnamed cows, and the mating habits of beetles with beer bottles. There is more scientific value in an episode of Mythbusters than in some of the serious research conducted in universities.

The research that the Ig-Nobel recognises is not necessarily devoid of value, but that does not mean it should be taxpayer-funded. As the internet blooms, more and more avenues for privately funded scientific discovery are becoming available. The growth in the crowdsourcing and other market mechanisms through websites such as Kickstarter and Crowdflower show how public demand can drive innovative scientific projects through donations of money and time.

There is a place for government funding in science where the start-up costs are high, the lead times are long, and the returns are diffuse. But this does not mean government should be funding every little idea that pops into the head of our ivory tower professors.

The private sector does not have the capacity to fund all scientific discovery like that which led to the Higgs boson, but the growth in the internet has provided the scientific community with a new funding opportunity from interested people – an opportunity that it should embrace rather than government funding.

Andrew Baker is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies. View his full profile here.