Column on Extortion in the Name of Science

Extortion in the Name of Science

Tibor R. Machan

While the country is going into more and more debt by the seconds, and while some even in Washington are beginning to be concerned–after all, their share of the loot taken from citizens year round and culminating on April 15th each year could shrink just as will everyone’s who leaches off taxpayers–I admit I have heard nothing at all about cutting funding for science.

That science’s take is huge can be gleaned just from the fact that, according to Nature magazine, within a small segment of it, synthetic biology, the funding in America since 2005 came to about $430 million (compared to all of Europe’s $160 million). Why is there no discussion of this, not even on Fox TV? Is science the sacred cow of our time so when scientists get support from the government’s confiscation of our resources, it is left unscrutinized?

A most recent copy of a prominent science magazine–I subscribe to a few but all contain these tidbits and several go on record after every presidential election to insist that no reduction in what is spent on science should be on the agenda of the new administration–reports that one recent study showed the vital finding that “For pythons, indulging in a meal not only distorts physique, it also reshapes microbial communities living in the gut” (Nature, June 2010, p. 849). Dozens and more of such items are reported and I do not see how the majority of the research being funded and conducted bears in the slightest on what the job of government ought to be, protection of our rights. This job could require some scientific research, of course, in forensics, military hardware, etc., etc. But hardly any of the money being used to fund science goes for such expenses. The bulk goes to university science schools and their departments or to research labs, with all their theorists and researchers doing admittedly (at least sometimes) interesting–maybe even ultimately useful–work. None of it seems to me to justify taking it from others who haven’t chosen to make it their responsibility.

But that goes for me without saying. I am someone who considers extorting funds from innocent citizens for even the most noble purposes thoroughly immoral and not at all the function of a government of a free country. Am I, however, completely out of line with my stand here?

Well, judging by the deafening silence in the mainstream media it appears that I definitely am. (When I edited the book Liberty and R & D for the Hoover Institution Press, back in 2002, I had the hardest time finding just a few scientists who would join me in critically examining the practice of science funding by governments.) One reason, I suspect, is that most fields of science are so terribly esoteric, so crammed with the kind of jargon that no ordinary citizen can understand, that to take a look at the area with a critical eye, focused even just on its funding, is intimidating. And even among skeptics a blanket rejection of government funding of non-military, non-police related science work appears too radical–surely some work in the sciences is important enough to warrant the transfer of resource from the citizenry at large to the scientific community, even at the point of the gun!

Well, no it isn’t. But the governmental habit is very, very old. Since time immemorial governments (i.e., rulers) have wrested for themselves the task of doing a great deal of the work of a society–science, the arts, religion, education, transportation, etc., etc. Weening scientists from their traditional sources of funding, confiscated resources of the citizenry that used to be so natural under monarchies, would appear to be an impossible task, maybe comparable to supporting gay marriages! (But, hey, these are no longer taboo!)

It is time, I think, for knowledgeable folks, to follow the lead of the likes of Terrence Kealey (see his courageous book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research [Macmillan, 1996]) and go on record with the case for science without government–without coercion, in other words. Criticisms from the likes of me are too easy to wave off since we are not among the initiated in this highly specialized area of human concern, namely, scientific research.

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