Research grants issued by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) contribute to a significant number of private-sector patents in biomedicine, according to a new study co-authored by an MIT professor.
The so-called “small government” politicians of the last few decades have a strong record of undermining or directly attacking science, research, and science education, often as part of their whole “shrink government to help everybody” mantra. It’s a line that seems to appeal to millions of Americans, whether conservative, moderate, or liberal, because on the surface of it, it seems to make sense. The government is discussed as a monolithic entity that takes our hard-earned money and wastes it on all sorts of bullshit, and like all the best lies, this one has a kernel of truth. Pretty much anyone can point to some example of government waste that pisses them off, so it’s easy to hear a bit of rhetoric about how bad the government is, match it to your own views, and agree. As usual, however, if we don’t look a little deeper, we can end up supporting policies that hurt everybody, including ourselves.
I work in the field of science education research, which puts me in contact with people involved in all manner of research from the so-called “hard sciences”, to social sciences, and everybody around the periphery. One complaint that remains constant throughout is the decline in funding of research for the sake of research.
It’s a point I’ve had to make many times, mostly with conservatives. Research is exploration. It’s climbing a mountain to see what’s on the other side. Often we’ve got a good idea what’s on the other side, but in order to be sure, we have to climb the mountain. We might suspect that there’s a village there based on noises we hear on a quiet night, or smoke rising over the peak, but we’re not going to send a trading caravan until we know there’s someone to trade with, and so somebody has to go ahead, and find out.
Research for the sake of increasing our understanding, rather than for the simple hope of profit, is incredibly important, even if you don’t care about increasing our understanding of the cosmos. The space program was not built for profit. It was built for national pride, and to stick it to “the bad guys”, and to learn more about our tiny corner of the universe. It is also famous for generating a wide array of technologies that have improved our standard of living across the board, and have generated billions in profit.
Personally, I care more about the standard of living issue, but when we’re talking about capitalism, socialistic research is one of the best tools we have for creating opportunities for wealth. SpaceX would not exist without the work NASA did. There was no financial profit in going to the moon. The fact that that is a problem for some people boggles my mind, but life would be boring as hell if everybody thought like I do.
Recently, I’ve seen an increase in conservatives saying that the profit motive and private industry are the primary drivers in the discovery and development of new treatments in medicine. I’ve even heard that as a defense of our incompetent, ineffective, and cruel “healthcare system” here in the U.S..
The reality is that the billions spent on research by the government have generated a lot of profit for private industry. A majority of the research grants don’t, but saying that means we shouldn’t be doing it is like saying we shouldn’t go check out what’s on the other side of the mountain because there’s not a village beyond every mountain, is the death of knowledge and of innovation. It’s promoting illiteracy because most books aren’t instruction manuals.