Saturday, October 09, 2010

Do We Need Tax-Funded Science?

You can do great research without tax-funding

Today Britain's nationalised science research industry joined the list of special interest groups protesting against cuts to their public funding. They say"we hope that by showing that scientists are not a soft touch, that there will be a political price to pay if our message goes unheeded by the Treasury."

Soft touch? As things stand, taxpayers put £5bn pa into "curiosity-driven science", and that is reportedly facing the same 25% cut as all the other non-ringfenced areas of public spending. So the scientists are hardly being singled out as a soft touch - they are merely being asked to take their fair share of the pain.

But setting that aside, there is a more fundamental question here - why should British taxpayers be forced to pay for any "curiosity-driven science" at all? In tough fiscal times, why can't we leave it to the market, or private foundations, or simply coat-tail on scientific advances made elsewhere?

According to the science industry it's because if we do, we will suffer economically. As a nation we will slip behind in the great science race, and we'll therefore slip behind economically.

But in truth there is no convincing evidence that would happen. Indeed, there is no convincing evidence of any economic return to this kind of tax-funded research.

As we've blogged before, 30 years ago Tyler took part in a government study of the economic return to basic scientific research. Despite piles of papers, endless international meetings, and the best efforts all round, we could find no trace of provable return whatsoever. And our study was not alone.

Which is why the science industry subsequently came up with an alternative measure of return, placing emphasis not on the direct return to specific research projects but on the supposed "spillover benefits" into the wider economy. The idea is that having a load of brainy people engaged in serious scientific research will somehow spill over into the rest of the economy via... well... er... ummm... ah yes, maybe some of them might go off and set up go-go companies like this one.

According to the science lobby, this spillover return is worth a huge amount - a staggering 30% pa on top of any direct project return.

Of course, on an intuitive level, we all accept science is vital to our prosperity - without science we'd still have an economy based on subsistence agriculture. But to accept a 30% spillover return on £5bn of research funding from hard-pressed British taxpayers, Tyler needs to see some hard evidence. And that is distinctly lacking. As the lobby itself admits:
"All our work emphasises to us that our estimates of the rates of return need to be treated with extreme caution. Most aspects of the methods unavoidably involve considerable uncertainties...

These figures are obtained from a small empirical literature, much of it US-centred and... the application to the UK... is at best tentative."
And this interesting US article casts considerable doubt on the US literature itself, describing the key study as being "methodologically dubious".

The bottom line is that the tax-funded science lobby is lobbying for itself. And that's fair enough.

But please don't be fooled into thinking that cuts in the science budget will undermine the prosperity of the nation.

They won't.

As far as anyone has ever been able to determine, our economy can work perfectly well without any tax-funded curiosity science at all. Private enterprise can take care of it.

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