2009 Karen Selick
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Marc 26, 2009 issue of the National Post.
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Don’t Rebuke Goodyear—Abolish His Job
The recent debate over Science and Technology Minister Gary Goodyear’s views on evolution is the epitome of frivolousness compared to the really important issue it brings to mind during this recession, namely: why do we have a minister of science and technology in the first place? Why is the Canadian government involved in promoting or steering scientific endeavour?
While there may be a necessary role for government in human affairs, shepherding science isn’t part of it. Even applying conventional notions of what functions the state should perform, there is no compelling evidence of “market failure” in science and technology—that is, no proof that the amount of scientific research being produced by privately funded institutions—including businesses and charities—is insufficient, requiring government to step in and generate more.
Nor is there any proof that government is better than private organizations at selecting which scientific projects are most beneficial to pursue.
Furthermore, no-one can ever prove that subsidizing science produces greater returns to society than subsidizing any of the myriad competing open maws all begging for government funds.
The recession has spawned a spate of news stories about Canadian scientists in various fields—from neuroscientists to climatologists—bemoaning government funding cuts for their research and threatening to emigrate to the U.S. or Australia. The stories lament that Canada will no longer be able to boast of “punching above its weight internationally” and leading the pack in various fields.
What is this, the Olympics or something? Are we supposed to shout rah-rah for scientists, as we do for athletes, simply because they reside in the same geopolitical territory as we do? Or have people really fallen for the bizarre implied threat that if scientific discoveries were made abroad, Canadians would never get access to the benefits?
The obvious rejoinder is that these days, knowledge is instantly transmissible around the world at virtually no cost. A Canadian expatriate working in Australia can share his discoveries with former colleagues in Canada almost as quickly as he can with the fellow down the hall in Canberra. Scientists from around the globe regularly convene at international gatherings to announce their discoveries, share ideas and cross-fertilize their imaginations.
Even an inventor who wants to “hoard” his knowledge by patenting it will still want his patented invention to be used as widely as possible around the world, to increase his profit. He’ll apply for patents in multiple countries. Canadians can therefore derive the benefit of a foreign inventor’s efforts without having been compelled to subsidize him.
In fact, the intelligent strategy for any government that felt inclined to be frugal these days would be to eliminate all subsidies for science and technology and simply allow its citizens to free-ride off the discoveries and inventions made in foreign countries and paid for by foreign taxpayers.
But what if every country did the same thing? Would scientific and technological progress grind to a halt in the dreaded “race to the bottom” that statists so often invoke in argument?
Clearly, no. Not all science and technology is government funded. Much is market driven. Businesses perceive a market advantage if they can offer customers better products than their competitors offer. They can also increase sales by offering improved versions of their own products. So the incentive to innovate is inherent in the market system.
But would this mean that we get only technology and no pure science?
Even if that were true, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, it is the same people who pay to fund science, whether they are wearing their consumer hats or their taxpayer hats. When citizens are permitted to vote with their wallets, they give priority to projects that they perceive will improve their lives the most. When bureaucrats spend their money for them, this is far less likely to happen.
But British scientist Terence Kealey, in his book Sex, Science and Profits, argues that the distinction between pure science and applied science is a myth—little more than a snobbish way of labelling government-funded science versus industry-funded science. Both university researchers and industrially employed scientists publish in the same academic journals. Indeed, while Harvard University stands first in worldwide citations of its scientific papers, IBM stands second. And contrary to popular belief, new technology has historically spawned so-called pure science more often than vice-versa.
Forget the notion of replacing or rebuking Gary Goodyear. Just abolish his job.
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July 12, 2009