I have a confession: I’ve been double dipping. In a world where the private sector funds private interests, and the state funds state interests, I’ve been on the payroll of both at the same time. But it’s not because I was doing anything nefarious: I’m a scientist, and it makes good sense. The state needs to invest in science to inform itself about the world, while the private sector draws on that knowledge to drive forward the marketplace of ideas and technology. I was fortunate enough to be caught in the middle.
The 21st century looms as a time when our society must face up to big-scale problems. Population growth, climate change, food shortages, peak oil and natural disasters like the earthquake which has just devastated Japan will force us to cope with greater challenges than any other human generation. However, against a backdrop of financial crisis, state spending is coming under scrutiny worldwide. Few economic sectors have escaped the spotlight, and the question has been asked: should public funds be spent on science? Can the private sector take responsibility for promoting scientific research?
In the past century, science has enjoyed increased public funding. Major investment from the state in science and technology has produced many famous outcomes, such as the USA’s space programme and the Human Genome Project. Beyond such iconic examples, the public purse has opened to directly fund scientific research across many fields in most major economies. Proponents of state funding laud science as an economically positive investment for the state, with the intellectual capital, innovation and spinoff technologies creating medium and long-term benefits to be reaped.
The picture isn’t quite so simple, though. A basic, yet compelling, economic argument against investment in scientific research is: the burden of cost falls on the research funding body, but the benefit is enjoyed by everyone with access to the resulting information gained. This open quality of science has underpinned its historical development. While competition is inevitable science, a culture of publication means that there is widespread sharing of ideas.
Sharing, and trust between competitors, is critically important to efficient scientific progress. There are examples, such as in defence, where secrecy is maintained throughout a research project. In less sensitive areas, peer review and collaboration is healthier and enables mutual use of a collaboratively formed body of knowledge. This helps science and society in a broad sense, but doesn’t make science in general an attractive investment product.
In the private sphere, the business of business is business. Publicly-listed companies operate today in relatively free markets, and their spending must be in the interest of their shareholders. That means commercially funded scientific research needs to have a reasonable expectation of financial return for the company. There is little room for sentimentality toward the open access concepts which have characterised much of science to date, and paid-for intellectual property must be guarded carefully.
That’s not an inherent problem. Useful information and innovations can emerge from commercially-driven research. However, they are usually focussed on the delivery of a viable product: a new drug, a more economical battery or a more powerful car engine. The products may be beneficial to the end-user and can contribute to the economy of a nation. The problem is that commercial research rarely has a reason to look at wider issues, such as climate change, earthquake monitoring or health problems such as the link between smoking and cancer. We simply cannot expect private investment to fund research at the scale and scope necessary to improve our understanding and management of such important issues.
Governments have a different suite of responsibilities to private companies. They must be able to performs their fundamental functions, such as ensuring national security, maintaining basic rights and freedoms for citizens and facilitating a functioning economy. Unlike a private company with a distinct group of shareholders, everyone in society has a stake in what the state does. The onus is, therefore, on the state to take proactive steps to advance our understanding of the world around us and provide solutions for potential problems.
In the same sense, it goes almost unquestioned that the state pays for military and diplomatic intelligence and communication, in the context of a globe of nations and in the interest of national security. Similarly, to keep abreast of the most up-to-date knowledge about the way the world is working, both in a theoretical sense and a direct, physical sense, our society must turn to science.
That means the state must fund a broad-reaching program of scientific research. Prioritising the research to focus on critical issues, such as health and climate change, is acceptable, but should not exclude basic research in all disciplines. A development in one field may catalyse another in a seemingly unrelated area. In my research, co-funded by the Australian Government’s Australian Research Council and a private company, I was part of a team which studied bacterial respiration and cell function while aiming to meet the needs of wastewater treatment operators looking for better ways to monitor their plant.
For a wastewater treatment company, paying to answer questions about how energy-carrying molecules interact with bacterial solutions would have been a dubious investment. However, that state-funded basic research informed the commercial strand of our project. All of the knowledge was necessary for us to develop more effective tools for wastewater management, benefiting the company, as well as the environment and the state of scientific knowledge in the field. Our findings are now, due to the presence of state funding, being published in the scientific literature and will remain there as a resource for anyone else who can utilise them.
Science can help us, as a society, to deliver a liveable future. However, the challenges we collectively face will require strong, well-informed decision making. We can only plan for the future if we understand what it may hold, and science is the best tool we have for understanding and predicting the way the world works. The private purse looks after its shareholders. We all have a stake in the world, so we should support the state in funding the science which will understand and improve it. As a society, we cannot afford to surrender progress and human understanding of issues, large and small, to the whims of the market.