Stand Back! The market tries science.

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A little over a year ago, a staff writer for UNO's twice-weekly newspaper (The Gateway) approached me to ask what I thought of some new federal funding for scientific research. My response, in the following clip:

"I am personally opposed to most government spending, particularly in the sciences," physics teaching assistant Erica Tesla said. "Government funding frequently comes with a lot of strings attached, many of which are inconvenient at best or crippling at worst. My opposition to government spending in the sciences is not meant to imply that I think the science should be a lower priority than other things-the problem is that spending implies control."

Full article: Pessimism follows federal science initiative announcement.

Looks like research is backing up my opinion: Reason Hit & Run makes a mention of some research saying private research is better at making breakthroughs. Given that we can't get protection for scientists who expose manipulation, distortion, or suppression of their research, is that really any surprise?

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I maintain that the best way to spurr research (unless it's needed for a specific gov't objective in which case direct funding makes sense because the government is the client and that level of control is appropriate.) is to provide tax deductions for R&D dollars.

The problem is that "specific government objective" is a muddy phrase. Examples:

1. The government decides on the objective of "clarifying the role of human activities with regard to climate change".
2. The government decides on the objective of "demonstrating that human activities do not have an appreciable affect on climate change".

I'm using that example as a hot-button issue, but it's generalized. Government control is only appropriate to a certain level; after a plan of study is introduced, scientists need to be free to steer inquiry as the scientific method dictates, rather than as a particular outcome suggests. Anything else is disingenuous, wasteful, and at worst, dangerous.

Let me unmuddy it then. Most DoD projects are very discretely defined. "We want a missile that will fly around corners, ask locals for directions to VIPs we want dead, and make us coffee when it's not being used for blowing shit up(tm)." That's an appropriate investment of tax dollars into research. (At least as far as specific objectives go. I have issues with Uncle Sam spending my money to make a missle/coffeemaker combination.)

#1 isn't specific enough except to begin inquiry for policy purposes. A more specific question would be: Estimate the impact of and present report at X date before committee.

#2 isn't a scientific inquiry at all, it's pre-research spinning and is inappropriate for ANYONE to ask scientists to engage in. It's a leading question.

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This page contains a single entry by Erica published on June 18, 2007 2:28 PM.

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