October 17, 2013
When it comes
to entitlement, they’ve got nothing on scientists.
The federal “shutdown”
gave limited-government activists -- and observant taxpayers -- a grisly
glimpse at the ingrates who inhabit America’s scientific community.
Pampered by decades of accountability-free largesse, the lab-coat lobby threw
tantrums when its gusher of revenue was temporarily stanched.
before Congress, Alan Leshner, CEO of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science, warned that the “government
shutdown is coming as a serious blow to an already beleaguered American
scientific enterprise.” The National Institutes of Health’s grant process, he griped,
had “been disrupted,” the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s
nautical charts were not being updated, and “exceedingly few direct [Department
of Energy] employees in most R&D offices” were exempt from furloughs.
of the U.S. Geological Survey, expressed frustration to The Washington Post after being locked out of his office. The
paleontologist, who’s spent four decades in “public service,” huffed that
politicians’ “time scale is in the here and now.”
fiscal standoff ended, astronomer
and climate-change commissar Phil Plait tweeted: “Keep this in mind: The
#shutdown cost the US as much money as NASA gets in a year, with two more
Curiosity rovers thrown in.”
Why all the
snark? The nation’s scientists are bright enough to grasp the concept of a $16.7 trillion national
debt. But they know that their profession is broadly respected, too. Polls
consistently show that scientists rank at the top -- among
doctors, soldiers, and teachers (!)
-- in public esteem.
has been leveraged to erect a sprawling complex of taxpayer-funded science. When
Sputnik went into orbit
in 1957, fedpols appropriated
$34 billion for R&D. (The figure, and those to follow, are adjusted for
inflation.) Twelve years later, as Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins
avenged the Russkies’ space slight, the amount had risen nearly threefold, to $97 billion. In 1977, when
Jimmy Carter pleaded that the “energy crisis” was the “moral
equivalent of war,” R&D had fallen to $89 billion. In 1983, the year
that Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic
Defense Initiative, subsidies dipped to $88 billion. Spending had risen to
$97 billion in 1996, when Dolly
the sheep was cloned. Four years later, as the dot-com boom imploded, the
figure was $102 billion.
Then came the Bush-Obama era.
Terrorism + “stimulus” = enormous amounts of cash for science. In 2010, Washington spent a staggering $147 billion to study everything
from wildlife biology to directed-energy weapons, cancer treatments to gamma-ray bursts, Antarctica to the Higgs boson.
What are the
results of all this research? Good question, but obtaining a satisfying answer
isn’t easy. Scientists may require precision in their respective disciplines,
but when asked about return on “investment,” they keep things vague. Buzzphrases
abound: “improving America’s
competitiveness,” “inspiring the next generation of explorers,” “creating
high-paying jobs,” “better informing the decisions of policymakers and
real and hyped, get press releases. Politicization, misallocations,
inefficiencies, and outright failures slither down the memory hole. Environmental
and public-health consultant Steve Milloy
recently wrote that the “War on Cancer” is “a major failure and the money for
the most part could have been far more effectively applied elsewhere.” In the ‘70s,
‘80s, and ‘90s, subsidized nutritionists denigrated Robert Atkins, whose diet had
already helped millions before its credibility-garnering
2002 profile in The New York Times.
There’s been no detectible payoff from research conducted aboard the International Space
Station. Federal meddling in energy has been an appalling flop -- e.g., nuclear
fusion, the Synthetic Fuels Corporation, solar panels, the Clinch
River Breeder Reactor Project, hydrogen-powered automobiles.
In the words
of economist Scott J. Wallsten, “R&D is inherently risky and many projects
will fail.” That’s why federal expenditures on science should be limited to
specific needs of core government functions. (Think better forensic tools for
the FBI to catch serial killers, or technologies to deflect a giant asteroid
with Earth’s name on it.)
Wardlaw, Plait, and most of their colleagues probably don’t know it, American
science thrived in the epoch of scant government support. Well into the 20th
century, amateurs with day jobs to cover the bills made impactful discoveries. Patents,
books, and lectures provided
income to others. Philanthropy played a significant role -- Guggenheim wealth
funded the pioneering rocketry of both Robert Goddard
and Jack Parsons.
In our time, billionaire
Paul Allen has donated $500 million
(so far) to brain research.
scientists don’t need more subsidies. Their work is immeasurably important, and
it needs to be unfettered from Washington’s
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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