Interview with Professor Terence Kealey


Terence Kealey is the current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham the only independent university in Britain. He is a Professor of Clinical Biochemistry. Prior to his tenure at Buckingham, Prof Kealey lectured in clinical biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. He is well known for his outspoken opposition to public funding of science, being one of the rare vocal classical liberals in academia. He is the author of The economic laws of scientific research (1996) and Sex, science and profits (2008).

Below is the transcript of the interview I had the privilege of conducting with Prof Kealey. It is as verbatim as my very amateurish recording equipment can allow. The only editing is in order to adapt spoken word to (virtual) paper and to make an organic conversation slightly more fluid.

First of all, could we have a little bit of an introduction? What is your background, how did you end up at the University of Buckingham?

OK. It’s very simple, I’m a very old man now, I’m 61. As a young man, my career was completely conventional as a research biochemist. I did my PhD at Oxford. And the event that really more than any other precipitated me into thinking about matters outside the immediate laboratory was when in 1985, the university of Oxford very publicly embarrassed Margaret Thatcher by first offering and then withdrawing an honourary degree.

And I was appalled, because I was a very great fan of Margaret Thatcher. But I was also very much in love with Oxford University. And there was something that didn’t seem to be right here. And I started investigating the claims that the academics of Oxford were making to justify the insult to Mrs Thatcher, withdrawing the initial offer of the honourary degree. The claims were, that under Margaret Thatcher, government funding for research had gone down and therefore universities were being damaged, and our economic prospects were being damaged.

So although I’m a biochemist I took six weeks out to investigate these claims. What I discovered was a number of phenomena that made me really interested in economics. The most interesting phenomenon was while that it is true that Margaret Thatcher had reduced the government funding for science, the rate of increase of private funding for science had more - much more - than compensated for that. This introduced me to the concept of crowding out. Like many other people, before I had assumed that government funding for research or education or health somehow was an addition to what otherwise would not have been provided. But what I discovered was that the phenomenon of crowding out, even in the so-called “public goods”, it could be universal. So if you have crowding out in science, that begs the question why should the taxpayer pay for something that the private sector could provide.

So that was the first thing, and I discovered that crowding out in science goes all the way back centuries. But the other thing I discovered was that the arguments used by the academics in Oxford claming that British science was in decline, universities were suffering, were completely casuistic, and in fact they were presenting very, very, very partial data conflating relative decline - which is a very good thing, there is no reason why Britain should always have 10 % of the world’s papers, what about Africa or Asia or India, why should they not publish papers? - they were conflating that with absolute decline, and of course there was no absolute decline at all. Our science was continuing to double in size every 15 years.

I learned that there was an enormous amount of misleading pseudoscholarship that comes from organizations such as universities to justify government funding. But at the same time, the objective development is that government funding was replacing - crowding out - private funding. I put all this together and realized this is a very interesting topic that needed investigation. So I effectively became a libertarian in general terms and in particular with regards funding for science and higher education.

I was looking at the courses offered at the University of Buckingham. I was wondering why is there really no hard science offered?

Well that’s very simple. We do some science. But the answer to that is: crowding out. If the government has a huge oversupply for places and funding for science, which it certainly does, it is very hard to persuade people to come to an independent university and pay very significant fees, when they could just go down the road to Oxford or other state universities, where until very recently the fee regimes were really quite reasonable and get a very good education.

So Buckingham as a university has had to be very nimble at finding niches that the state sector doesn’t supply. So for example, the sort of thing that Buckingham has done that has allowed it to flourish is that we have the best staff/student ratio and we have the greatest number of contact hours, so we come top every year in the NSS. That’s something we could do. We have 2 year degrees or 3 year degrees, students have to work in the summer. That’s something we could do. We have an education department that trains teachers for the independent schools rather than state schools. We have 400 students on those courses. So where there are gaps in state provision, we can fill them. But it is very hard to create an independent university, charging full fees, in a world where these things are normally “free”. And the problem Buckingham and other independent universities have is that they are hugely crowded out.

Some say there would be no technological development without government funding.

K: Well we go back to crowding out. If we go back a hundred years - a hundred years ago Britain and America were free market economies. According to today’s “public good” argument, that would mean American and Britain would be very poor countries, whereas countries like France and Germany, where there was generous government funding of science, would be rich. The exact converse is true: America and Britain were the richest countries in the world. America, for example, developed the aeroplane - the Wright brothers, Edison made significant discoveries. In this country we have people like Charles Darwin or Lord Kelvin. We had enormous, fantastic science, Britain and America, completely funded by the market or by charities, whereas Germany and France lagged behind us economically. They made advances, of course they did. What is interesting that they never converged. Germany never became as rich as Britain and America throughout the 19th century. That experiment alone shows that you do not need government funding for science. It might, actually, because of taxes, hold the entire economy back.

What about things like neglected tropical diseases? Many people would say that only private funding bodies do not care, and only public funding can aid those suffering in the developing world.

K: I think you’re wrong when you say that it’s largely public. Until very recently, the largest charity in the world was the Wellcome Trust, and that’s been overtaken by the Gates Foundation. Both Wellcome and Gates have huge involvement in orphaned diseases. My suspicion is that Wellcome and Gates spend more on orphaned diseases than do conventional government charities.

Don’t forget market economies tend to throw out very significant philanthropic activities, unless they’re crowded out by the state. That is essentially the philanthropic spheres in Britain and America. The reason for that is because markets obtain funding from trust, all sorts of moral authority that come into market. I exclude of course the financial market. Ordinary markets run by ordinary people are organizations that are built from trust, cooperation and collaboration. The men who become rich in the market have a habit of demonstrating the trust by placing significant donations into charity. Having said all that, if for whatever reason the philanthropic impulse dimmed compared to the needs recognized by the society at large as being important, like looking after orphaned diseases - fine, let the state come in. But let no one pretend there is economic benefit, because this is not for economic benefit, but for collective philanthropy.

You say there’s no economic benefit. However, what about the formation of the Rockefeller Commission, set up by the famous oil magnate, after the American Civil War? They were investigating the reasons why the South was not recovering economically, and found that it was due to the lethargy people developed from hookworm infection. You could say that there was an economic incentive to get those people healthy and working, and to have the southern states recover.

K: I didn’t know that, that’s very interesting, but it’s an example of rich people being philanthropic. This is absolutely no surprise - it’s Arthur Rockefeller after all. The Rockefeller Foundation in New York made a whole series of fantastic discoveries. It was at Rockefeller, for example that Avery discovered that DNA is the material of genetic memory. The Rockefeller Foundation was the organisation that funded to a huge extent the work on the development of penicillin - made actually at Oxford, but was funded by the Rockefeller. And if I remember rightly, it was Rockefeller who founded the University of Chicago. So it’s no surprise at all that rich people tend - as long as they’re allowed to keep their money in the tax environment anyway - to give their money to public causes. They understand the need and they have resources. That is normal, it should be no occasion for surprise.

Another issue in science these days is various state-sponsored promotions of “women in science”. Do you think the gender balance in academia is any business of the state?

We all want to live in a fair world with equal opportunity. If you believe that we live in the world where there’s subtle, real sexist programming of expectation so that women don’t become nuclear physicists because there’s a subtle pressure on them to become homemakers and men don’t become domestic cooks… If you believe all that, and I don’t know what the evidence is, then you want to sort of… actively program the collective. But I personally, as most libertarians and classical liberals, take the view that these things can be left essentially to sort themselves out.

For example, the majority of students in British universities are women. So the idea that women are somehow disadvantaged… By the numbers of undergraduates it is clearly nonsense. Now most are then immediately told, “Yes, but of course, but at the level of professorial appointments women suffer from sexism”. I don’t believe that. There’s a vey interesting paper written by a University of Buckingham professor, actually, where he looked at salaries earned by men and women who had no children. Women with no children, in the workplace, out-earned men with no children. I think it’s crushingly obvious that women have a different biological destiny from men and therefore many women would operate differently. I prefer the state to stay out of these things.

On the other hand there is no question that there are real injustices in this world. The classic example is the legacy of slavery in America. There have been programmes to encourage black people to go to American universities for years. I’m not sure I believe in that sort of positive discrimination, but I certainly respect the motives behind it, even though I probably wouldn’t have implemented it. There are times when the state has to intervene to prevent injustice, but in the main I’m against… obviously, like most libertarians I’m against interference by the state.

Have you experienced much science denialism or general skepticism towards science in libertarian circles? At least online there seems to be a vocal presence of libertarians protesting against things like GM foods…

All that’s nonsense, all that’s nonsense. I’m, obviously, like all scientists, I’m slightly impatient with what we call “Luddite thinking”. Clearly, you have to be cautious of any innovation, because there are unexpected and unintended consequences of any discovery. I read in the paper just the other day that omega 3 fatty acids, for example, that we have been told to take religiously for the past 30 years to protect us from various cardiac diseases - now we’re told in this paper that they precipitate prostate cancer in men. I don’t know if that’s true or not. So obviously, we always have to be cautious with innovation but to be Luddite about innovation is just ridiculous! I mean, GM foods - every GM experiment has to be judged in its own terms, but the idea that GM food per se is dangerous, I, of course, reject.

There’s also quite a strong anti-vaccination sentiment expressed by quite a few libertarians as well, possibly because of the whole state policy of compulsory vaccination.

First of all, I think its a genuinely difficult issue. There is the problem of herd immunity. Vaccination may be one of those areas that is a genuine public good. We all as individuals benefit, and our children benefit from the fact that everyone else has been vaccinated. And therefore that does actually present a genuine problem. One shouldn’t think that there are simple solutions.

Having said that, the evidence fortunately with vaccination is also that it’s in your own personal interest to be vaccinated. So my feeling is that children should be vaccinated because they are not of an age to make these decisions because they are not fully competent mentally and therefore I would subscribe to the view that society actually has the right and possibly even the duty to enforce vaccination of children against childhood diseases. Adults, for example… if say, adult women who choose not to have vaccinations against the papilloma virus - well, that’s a slightly tricky one, because that’s also an adolescent condition. Well.. smoking - if adults want to smoke, that’s fine. I mean I don’t see why they shouldn’t.

My views are classical liberal views - if it is a genuine public good, then I will support the action, and also children are not of the age of informed consent. On balance, I would be reluctant to go down that route, but sometimes you just have to.

Thank you very much for your time!

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