Government Science: An Oxymoron?

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When
I was working on The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
, just out from Regnery,
people would sometimes look shocked when I told them the topic.
"Science is politicized? How can that be?" "Water
is a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Politicize that!"

"He who
pays the piper calls the tune." That is the problem. When the
government is paying the bills, truth is not the first priority.
More important are press releases that either scare the people or
promote unwarranted hopes. The supreme scare message right now is
avian 'flu. People are happy to accept a budget increase for public
health agencies if they think a "pandemic" is being averted.
As to the false hopes, just take a look at what they were saying
a few years about the Human Genome Project, and are still saying
today about stem cell research.

But there's
a more basic problem. A fundamental truth about science is that
practice takes precedence over theory. If something works, that
cannot be denied because theoreticians don't know why. Scientific
research therefore depends on trial and error, and private-sector
research involves lots of trials and almost as many errors. Capital
is invested in a wide range of ideas and approaches, and maybe only
one will pay off. Maybe none.

Government,
on the other hand, is monopolistic by its nature. It is difficult
for bureaucrats to fund conflicting theories because it would look
hit or miss. Most of the money would be "wasted," and
politicians fear any such accusation. So they tend to put all their
eggs into a single basket.

In the private
sector, it's called risk, not waste. Historically, the competition
of theories was the driving force behind scientific progress. Private
individuals and companies were the most fruitful source of this
advance. And just as a competitive market system forces innovation
into private enterprise, so the competition of theories drives science
to investigate new approaches. The greatest scientific advance we
have seen in recent decades, in the field of computer and information
technology, was achieved by private companies. It involved a great
deal of risk and "wasted" investment. But there was also
tremendous progress.

Government
bureaucracies set up to do science – think National Institutes
of Health – obstruct the pursuit of alternative theories without
necessarily even meaning to. Committees of experts decide who is
to get funded, and these committees are inevitably run by scientists
who are at peace with the dominant theory.

A good example
is the National Cancer Institute. In 1971 President Nixon declared
his "War on Cancer" and everyone equated more funding
with more progress. That is one equation that the advocates of more
government never question. (It was foreseen that a cure for cancer
would be found by 1976.)

Government
cancer funding is now huge – over $5 billion a year for the
NCI alone – but no progress has been made beyond discouraging
people from smoking. The underlying problem is that since about
1976 most of the money has gone to a single theory – the gene
mutation theory of cancer. And the indications are that it is incorrect.
(I have a chapter on it.) Nobel Prizes have been won by prestigious
scientists for their discovery of cancer-causing genes. The problem
is that no such gene, either singly or in combination with others,
has yet been shown to transform a normal human cell into a cancer
cell.

When the press
starts howling for government funding in a field where great progress
has been promised, it's a sign that the prospects are not good.
Stem cell research is the best example. Notice that such research
is perfectly legal. But funding by the Federal government is restricted
for ethical reasons. Oh, the howling! So states got into the act
– notably California. Last year, voters approved a proposition
that would send $3 billion from taxpayers to stem-cell researchers.

One of those
who put up money to support the proposition was Bill Gates of Microsoft.
So why didn't he just fund a biotech himself, hire the best researchers,
and tell them to get on with it? The potential payoff was huge,
given all the talk of stem cell treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's,
Alzheimer's and other widespread conditions.

Well such biotechs
already exist, and their stock prices swiftly rose and then fell
two years ago. (Stem cells were discovered in 1998.) The appeal
for government funding was an indicator that the prospects for treatments
were not so good after all. In September, leading scientists held
a meeting in San Francisco to decide how to allocate California's
$3 billion. At that point, scientists said that treatments were
"nowhere close, maybe decades away," as the San Francisco
Chronicle reported.

Oh. Now they
tell us. It looks as though the ethical objections were deliberately
played up as a way of disguising the lack of real scientific advance.

November
15, 2005

Tom
Bethell [send him mail]
is a senior editor of The American Spectator. The
Politically Incorrect Guide to Science
(Regnery) was published
November 14.

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