With this topic, we are getting close to the heart of the whole matter. The history of government funding for the arts and sciences closely parallels the 20th-century transition of Western governments from liberal democracies to social democracies I discussed earlier, and the rise of the totalitarian socialist/fascist state. Dr Dave raised the subject in his comment on the previous thread, and I thought it deserved a separate discussion space here.
Dave referred to the farewell speech of U.S. President Eisenhower in 1961. It is a powerful and far-reaching oration, delivered at a time of a Cold War becoming increasingly hot, building tensions in South-East Asia and successful testing of Soviet atomic weapons.
Coming from the man who was Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe in WWII, any speech including the word liberty four times and war twice that is to be taken very, very seriously. Eisenhower, referring to the increasing pace of the technological revolution, warns of a growing tendency for public policy to be held to ransom by those who control that technology on which it depends:
In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers.
The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system — ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
The three most prominent and best-known scientific projects undertaken by the U.S. Government (and by extension, the governments of its allies which played a part in all three) were the Manhattan Project, the Apollo lunar exploration project and the IPCC. As Dave pointed out yesterday, the first was, strictly speaking, an engineering rather than a scientific enterprise, drawing on discoveries in physics made decades earlier. The second drew on military research into rocketry undertaken after the Second World War and was part of a militarily-motivated push by the United States to establish a presence in space.
The IPCC, while run under the aegis of the United Nations, is predominantly funded by the American and British taxpayer (along with, rather anachronistically, France, Germany, Italy and Japan). It draws upon government-funded research into climate which appears to reach a broadly convergent conclusion. Two explanations are possible for this; which one you believe depends, I would suggest, largely on your views on the rôle governments should play in the funding of science.
I have set down my own position on this issue in earlier threads on this blog. As a Libertarian, I believe the functions of government should be limited to ensuring national sovereignty, protecting life and limb, upholding Common Law and constructing and maintaining essential public infrastructure. The arms of government thus naturally comprise the military, parliament, the courts, police, and such departments of Public Works as are needed to maintain roads, rail, ports and so on. (I personally lean towards social ownership of power generation and distribution and communications infrastructure, but that’s a story for another day).
Research into military technology is thus a proper use of public money; though in practice it may be outsourced to private agencies where a proper cost-benefit analysis shows this to be favourable. For the rest, I believe funding should be left to the private sector. It is fatuous to suggest money cannot be found this way for essential research; the world’s leading funder of malaria research is a private U.S. citizen. If individuals genuinely believe in the imminence of a threat, they will put their money where their mouths are. The issue, it seems to me, is one of advocates of Big Government wishing to put other people’s money where their mouths are.
And this is the primary problem—if politicians and activists are in control of large reserves of public money to spend as they will, the tendency to empire-building and perpetuation of the process at the expense of clearly-defined outcomes, becomes overwhelming. It’s human nature. Worse, there is the inevitable temptation of scientists co-opted into the process to abandon scientific empiricism (which is deaf and blind to political considerations) and seek conclusions favourable to their benefactors, and b) the propensity of malevolent forces seeking social control to hijack the democratic process, leading to what is now known as post-normal science.
It seems fitting to end with Eisenhower’s words from the same speech. The forces he warned of half a century ago have been defeated—but for them it is only a temporary setback, as they are regrouping and redefining their methods. Control of public money for “scientific” endeavour is but one of the many fronts on which they are waging their battle:
We face a hostile ideology—global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily the danger is poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle—with liberty the stake. Only thus shall we remain, despite every provocation, on our charted course toward permanent peace and human betterment.