Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Government Science

In the ongoing debate about embryonic stem cell research there are people who insist that the research simply must be funded by federal funds because the uncertainty associated with this kind of research makes it impractical for private corporations.

Remember the Human Genome Project, a government project which was to cost (at least) 3 billion dollars and take (at least) 15 years? A private effort with a 300 million dollar budget did the job in 5 years. The rage of the Left at this object lesson in the superiority of the private sector was rivaled only by Satan’s fury at the sight of the empty tomb.

Ever stop to wonder why private scientific research does so much better than government funded research? The answer is simple. Researchers are self interested just like all other humans.

This is how government funded scientific research works. A scientist works at a government funded lab like the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He comes up with an idea and applies for a grant from a government agency to fund research into his idea.

ORNL keeps its doors open and meets its payroll by the steady inflow of government grant money. The scientists who work at ORNL need the steady inflow of grant money to keep their individual labs funded and justify their employment. When they have a project to work on their position is secure. When they finish a project they get some pats on the back and are able to publish some journal articles (and in 10 or 15 years they might even win a Nobel Prize) but, bottom line, the successful conclusion of a research project means a loss of funding and the need to come up with another proposal for a research project followed by another search for grant money. They need the occasional breakthrough to help keep the money spigot open, but mostly they need ongoing projects more than they need successful results.

What about the money that can be made from a successful advance in science or technology? Well the law requires a government funded laboratory to license all commercially viable discoveries to American companies. The lab gets a license fee and a share of the profits amounting to a few percent. The actual scientist gets a taste, but the profits from a past discovery do not fund your lab in the present. Only current projects funded by grants can keep you employed.

This means that the incentives in government funded research lead scientists to value ongoing projects more than completed projects. They are led by economic realities to make only enough progress to satisfy the check writers. Final results are only sought when the check writers are finally ready to give up and look for some other project to fund.

If it had not been for Celera Genomics the human Genome Project would still be chugging along producing just enough in the way of results to keep the cash flowing.

This is not a slam at scientists. They are human and are only acting like any other group of humans would act. When the incentives lead them to do rapid and efficient work they will do so. Private companies do not get paid until they finish the job and get a product on the market. This is why Celera was able to do the job for one tenth the money and one third the time that the government funded effort.

This is why people who believe that state funded human embryonic stem cell research will be a medical panacea are destined to disappointment. The nanosecond that the research falls into the hands of government funded researchers the object of the project will be to milk it for as much government cash as possible.