The March For Science Should Demand Separation of Science And State

My second youngest son wanted to head downtown to D.C. for the March for Science. I had to explain to him that’s not quite what it was. I hope I say this non-chauvinistically, with a child graduating from a top university with dual degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering. I started out majoring in science myself but lacked the math chops.

Happening on Earth Day, the event bills itself “the first step of a global movement to defend the vital role science plays in our health, safety, economies, and governments.”

Of course, nobody denies the “vital role science plays.”

This event is mainly about government funding, though. From their website:

“The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity … in the face of an alarming trend toward discrediting scientific consensus and restricting scientific discovery.”

The politically driven scientific process we already have is disconcerting enough. To have scientists themselves march asking for more politics will damage tomorrow’s scientists and research machinery.

Over reliance on government funding threatens to steer science in politically preferred ways, and sets scientists and disciplines against one another competing for scarce grants. And as some marchers seem to wish, Washington could increasingly influence what one can even propose as research depending upon the political environment.

Healthy free enterprise by contrast expands wealth, including scientific wealth and basic knowledge. Much basic knowledge emerges from practical research rather than the other way around.

Consider: attempts to solve problems in microwave transmission led to discovery of the cosmic background radiation, helping validate the big bang.

And while government-funded Samuel Langley was catapulting the Aerodrome into the Potomac River, the Wright Brothers were doing the necessarily prerequisite propeller research in a bike shop that became a state of the art aeronautics lab.

Proponents of government steering often point to the moonshot, but we haven’t returned in nearly 50 years. They point to the space program’s spinoffs. OK, memory foam. But Teflon, Tang and Velcro did not come from NASA as commonly thought. Indeed current heavy regulatory policies toward space commercialization will keep private adventurers like Elon Musk away from Mars for a long time.

Many march participants are likely to be students, but I wonder how many know from their classes of President Eisenhower’s farewell address, warning about the blur between research, public policy, and the pursuit of (which? whose?) knowledge:

“[P]ublic policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite…Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity…The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.”

We’ve known better since 1961, but pet projects get picked and pet ideologies and mindsets get picked, with taxpayers required to support them. Government and favored educational institutions that toe the line come to dominate. Every politician wants a “research center” in his district’s university.

Notably, British biochemist Terence Kealey’s work has shown that countries spend what they spend on science. That is, if you add government funding, it displaces private sector spending; the proportion of GDP allocated to science remains about the same.

This emphasizes the need to expand private sector resources and research budgets. As I testified in the House Committee on Science and Technology, to expand scientific and technological knowledge and private research institutions and consortia we need a freer, less-regulated, wealthier economy.

Scientists getting seduced into this March should be asking for less government, not more. A truly healthy, research-bloated science economy means, as my colleague Fred Smith puts it, not picking the winning horses to run around the racetrack, but improving the track and removing obstacles so they all can run faster.

A more focused March for Science would seek separation of science and state. We’ll close here with just a few problems aggravated by the March’s symbolic elevation of politicized support for science as some sort of moral principle. There are legitimate disagreements over:

  • The fundamental merits of basic vs. applied research
  • The impact of private vs. public funding on discovery and well-being
  • The alleged objectivity of government vs. “industry” science and the chastisement of industry science in the marketplace of ideas
  • Potential confusions over the ownership or intellectual property status of federally funded discoveries (for example does the genome belong in the public domain, or are components patentable; What about discoveries in artificial intelligence if govenment has largely footed the bill)
  • Related information commons vs. proprietary views of information; that is, the “information wants to be free” ethic that permeates Internet policy but that might threaten scientific endeavors based on trade secrets
  • In contrast to trade secrets, the need for public access to scientific data upon which regulations are based (a new bill called the HONEST Act addresses the lack of access to scientific data upon which public policy gets made, and addresses the resulting reproducibility of results shortcomings.)
  • The right to not have one’s tax dollars used to fund research or pursuits with which one disagrees, such as, say, stem cell research or IQ reseach.

Big science questions of the day concern promising frontier technologies that either will be heavily regulated, or will not. Given heavy federal research funding already, the stage is set for heavy federal regulation of drones, robotics, artificial intelligence and more.

That’s too bad, but it’s not too late. Political science means heavily regulated science, so the real March for Science will have to wait.

Originally posted to Forbes