Government Science: An Oxymoron?

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