Should governments fund science?

Just heard Julia Lane – an expat Kiwi and science economist speaking on Radio NZ about science and the economy.  She’s in Christchurch for a debate “Is Science Good for the Economy?” which can be heard tomorrow night as part of the ice fest – see here.

A few nice points she made (my paraphrasing).

  1. There is a challenge for governments in that returns from basic research are long, complex, and often in unexpected directions.  This is often different from government priorities which are focused on short term benefits.
  2. The principle reason for governments to invest in science is for the public good.  If there are high returns expected, then this is a place for the private sector not the government.  So called “failure” or “dry holes” as she called them are examples of public good.  If a private company invests in science that does not work as they hoped, they have no reason to tell the world.  Government funded science will tell the world, thereby enabling all businesses to make better decisions about where not to invest $.
  3. The reasons for government investment should be (in this order) 1) Formation of more science knowledge, 2) social gains (eg cleaner streams), 3) work force effect (trained in science people entering businesses etc), and 4) economic
  4. A current concern is that there is too much emphasis on bean counting (eg science judged on number of publications, patents etc – Take note HRC, Marsden, PBRF (my comment)).
  5. Better funding models seem to be ones that fund individuals and groups rather than projects.  She mentioned the Howard Hughes Medical Institute which has done this very successfully and talked of ANU and Uni Melb who have upped their game doing this.
  6. Nice phrase was that “Science involves creation, transmission and adoption of knowledge through networks of human beings.”  She thinks science funding should emphasise the people and networks.  An example is TNF alpha which was discovered in the 70’s by Dr Lloyd Olds at Sloan Kettering.  A trace study (no reference, sorry) showed that whilst Dr Olds never produced a drug based on TNF alpha, his networks using the knowledge he gained developed billions of dollars worth which have helped millions of people.

One thought on “Should governments fund science?

  1. Mark

    I tend to think that governments should be good for the people, which is not just the economy, it is also supporting the people to gain knowledge and through knowledge and discovery one hopes to achieve a little wisdom on how to apply that knowledge, and so be good for the people….


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