q_research_101

Q: What should be the relationship between the government and scientific research?

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A: The track record is mixed, and our evaluation and conflict of interest mechanisms need tons of work, but some level of government support for basic research is a good thing.

Pure research is one of the best things human beings can do. When it is conducted by people who are only interested in learning about how the world works, research finds all kinds of fascinating answers but also stumbles in and out of countless dead ends.

But often, research is targeted toward something: a political or a corporate goal. We are trying to enact some policy or create some product. And while those forms of research can often have amazing results and even useful spinoffs, there is an inherent conflict of interest.

Consider the Food and Drug Administration. When it was originally founded in the 1930s all the way through 1992, this wing of the federal government was completely funded by taxpayer dollars. But today, nearly half of the funding comes from “user fees”—money paid by pharmaceutical and medical device companies to fund their trials [1].

It's hard to imagine that this produces the fairest and safest results, even with many safeguards in place. After all, if the scientists doing the research are being paid by the companies that want those treatments approved, doesn't that make it difficult to do a good job?

Invention and Control

Our Constitution (which we should all know more about), was written with innovation in mind. One of the enumerated powers of Congress is:

“To promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”

That means if you create something, you should own it. And in the late 1700s, much of what was being invented, written, or discovered was being done so by individuals.

Today, however, research tends to be a team activity funded by large institutions. That is how science has developed and its not going away. So if there is any area where the government could do more good with more money, it might be conducting more basic research and giving away the findings.

This is contrary to the current trends, where a great deal of research is done through partnerships between academia and industry. American universities are funded to the tune of about 40% by state and federal governments [2], but the practical outcome of this research usually becomes something proprietary.

Changing this system would be hard, because if a bunch of professors come up with a new design for a product (and publish their findings), no company is likely to have an advantage in the race to build that product. But at the same time, more research would be done based on what could be studied, not on potential profitability.

More Transparency

These models of conducting research are well-established, and identifying the best changes is no easy task. But the more everyday citizens are thinking about what scientists are up to and who is funding them, the better decisions we will make as a country.

And that's important, because so much of what we're doing right now (like with artificial intelligence) dramatically needs basic research without any particular agenda. We need to figure out what is possible, what is advisable, and what policies should be in place.

And that begins by doing the science solely for the sake of expanding our knowledge.


[1] https://today.uconn.edu/2021/05/why-is-the-fda-funded-in-part-by-the-companies-it-regulates-2/

[2] https://www.ibisworld.com/us/bed/government-funding-for-universities/4073/


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