How Should the U.S. Fund Research and Development?

Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic:

A&Q is a special series that inverts the classic Q&A, taking some of the most frequently posed solutions to pressing matters of policy and exploring their complexity.


ResearchThere’s no need to read any further: As this 2013 paper from Cato Unbound argues, it’s folly for the government to fund public science. Terence Kealey, a sociologist of science, argues that scientific research is not a public good—and, regardless, investment in, and the advancement of, science will occur regardless of who pays for it. Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, after all, did not have DARPA. Following Kealey’s argument, and considering past examples, research should be concentrated in industries, alongside “an armamentarium of private philanthropic funders of university and of foundation science by which non-market, pure research (including on orphan diseases) would be funded.”


The first question we must ask: What the hell’s an armamentarium? “A collection of resources available for a certain purpose,” answers the New Oxford American, supplying the more concise arsenal as a synonym. But I digress. Kealey imagines the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations like it stepping in to fund basic research. Right now, he says, money from those organizations are getting crowded out. So how would he answer Bill Gates himself, who in the pages of this magazine called for the U.S. government to triple its energy investment funding? Gates himself says he would only invest (patiently, at great risk, and looking to the long term) “the spin-offs that will come out of that government-funded activity.”

More here.