“Scientocracy” Highlights Problematic Incentives in Government Research

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Yesterday my Competitive Enterprise Institute colleagues put on an excellent event on science policy on Capitol Hill to celebrate the launch of the new book Scientocracy: The Tangled Web of Public Science and Public Policy. The quick take is that government-funded and government-endorsed science is subject to at least as many problematic and confounding issues as any research funded by a profit-seeking corporation.

Co-editor Terence Kealey pointed out how government funding crowds out private initiative and siphons off the most talented researchers, while the imprimatur of government approval, especially from the U.S. federal government, can lead people to believe certain findings are stronger or more definitive than they really are. Worse yet, politicians and career policy makers can use the government’s influence to boost favored experts and steer opportunities away from those whose research is in opposition to whatever the fashionable “consensus” is on the topic in question.

CEI Senior Fellow and Scientocracy contributor Michelle Minton gave a cautionary summary of her chapter on the disappointing saga of dietary sodium, in which the authority of the federal government misdirected the state of understanding of salt and hypertension for decades. She presented a similar case in her 2017 CEI study “Shaking up the Conventional Wisdom on Salt: What Science Really Says about Sodium and Hypertension.” Kealey described a similar effect when health and nutrition researcher Ancel Keys became the darling of federal policy makers in the mid-20th century, sending official dietary guidelines down a decades-long journey of pro-carb/anti-fat nonsense that we’re all only now recovering from

The concern about government taking over science and technology development is not new. As my colleague Fred Smith wrote back in 2011, President Eisenhower warned of such a trend as he was leaving office in 1961. Many Americans are familiar with his famous warning about the growing influence of the “military-industrial-complex,” but far fewer remember the other caution from his Farewell Address:

Ike noted that the government’s need for ever more advanced defense technologies would mean a growing reliance on science and scientific advisors, noting:

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. … A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.

That trend, he noted, might change the nature of the “free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery.” Partly because of the huge costs involved, “a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.” Economic and power considerations might influence scientific research and the reporting of its findings, leading to the “domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money”—a trend that should be “gravely…regarded.”

As with so many things in society, the argument is not that science and innovation isn’t important enough for the government to become involved, it’s that it is too important to let the perverse incentives of political control hold it back.