D. Dowd Muska


The Mission Is Science -- Not Subsidies

October 17, 2013

Corporate-welfare queens? Greedy geezers? “Disability” embellishers?

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.

Testifying 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.

Bruce Wardlaw, 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.”

When the 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.

That admiration 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 stakeholders.”

Breakthroughs, 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.)

Although Leshner, 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.

American scientists don’t need more subsidies. Their work is immeasurably important, and it needs to be unfettered from Washington’s whims.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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