The myth that science needs government funding to flourish might as well be the Law of Gravity. It is taken as the Truth by the vast, vast majority of scientists. Libertarian academics in the sciences are almost like honest politicians. I would like to propose a case that government funding of science is wasteful and coercive, and that science can only truly flourish in a free market.
Before I dig into the topic, I should make a full disclosure. I’m a PhD student at a Russell Group university, and almost all my funding comes from the taxpayer at gunpoint. In this society, it is almost the only way to do science. Sure, some projects are funded by companies, but how many of these companies are not suckling at the government’s teat? I would love there to be a free market in science, but I’ll take what I can get.
The arguments statists usually make usually revolve around the idea that no one but public (stolen) money will fund basic science. They are convinced that if we were to stop government funding of science, we’d go straight back to bloodletting and geocentrism.
The idea that only government will fund basic science is, basically, wrong. The Rockefeller Institute (now University), privately funded has made more than 100 contributions to health sciences, including paying for the research that discovered DNA as the genetic code and for the research that brought penicillin to market. IBM is the second most cited organisation in scientific journals, after Harvard. Most businesses worth their salt invest in basic research in their field.
Excessive waste of money and resources is a staple of government-funded scientific progress. Just think of NASA, the ultimate example of stolen taxpayer money thrown into a black hole (pun intended). Sure, space travel is pretty cool and the only way for humanity to survive past our planet’s sell-by date. I’d be the first person to sign up for a one-way trip to Mars, which will undoubtedly be privately funded. But $20 billion-ish dollars a year so they can (fail to) put up a satellite to “monitor global warming” or add another digit to the cosmic constant? Sure, good things have come out of the organisation, like GPS and pretty space pictures hipsters can wear, but you tell me private initiatives could not have achieved that at a fraction of the cost! I’m not denying the value of spin-off companies or, heavens forbid, of space travel! I’m simply asserting the very small leap of faith that most of what NASA has achieved could have been done (and will be done, better, faster, cheaper) by private companies.
“But no!” the statist argues, “NASA’s funding is but a fraction of that of the Department of Defense!” She makes a good point - the DoD wastes closer to $1 trillion a year, most of it to kill innocent people or to develop shiny things that kill innocent people. Nevertheless, waste cannot be excused by further waste elsewhere. Again, benefits from military R&D, like the internet, are used by all. Again, in private hands the discovery may very well have been faster and would most certainly be less blood-stained.
As early as in 1959 Rothbard wrote about the detriments that increased government funding for science education will produce. Even today we hear about the “need for more scientists”, especially more [insert "underrepresented" group here] scientists. Initiatives such as STEM or Athena Swann push for more government funding to train future scientists. All this increased supply leads to fewer job opportunities and lower salaries. Only about 10 % of PhD graduates go on to academic careers, and many are left with jobs that do not require 3-10 years (depending on location/luck) of backbreaking training. Sure, nobody in their right mind does a PhD for the money (trust me, I know), but I can’t help but wonder when a PhD, thanks to “degree inflation” will become the new Bachelor’s.
Science is amazing, and vital for the betterment of humanity in more ways than I can describe. But ultimately, despite what venerable academics want you to think it is not an esoteric public good. Most of the scientific results published will in no way make our lives better, but will definitely give their discoverers a sense of personal satisfaction and a career boost. Which is perfectly fine - in good old Ayn Randian fashion, a scientist should primarily work out of self interest and passion for the subject. It is just extremely good fortune that sometimes discoveries benefit the wider society. Like the esteemed Professor Terrence Kealey, the libertarian diamond in the academic rough, asserts, science is an “invisible college good”, and different areas of science are only truly accessible by people who train for long years in their particular subjects. Of course, the valuable spillovers of scientific discovery are available for all, but who provides them? You know it - private companies!
It may seem mind-blowing to the average liberal, but exclusively privately-funded science would be far more productive, efficient and streamlined. And it would certainly not be any less free: the US government keeps making viral research harder and harder. Sure, we may not know how long a shrimp can run on a treadmill (I’m not kidding), but we would most likely have all the benefits (and more!) of free and voluntary contribution to the development of human knowledge.