Diminishing Returns of Grant-Based Science

David Randall

CounterCurrent: Week of 1/23

Science ought to be in the business of discovering astonishing new truths. Ever since Archimedes yelled Eureka! when he discovered the bathtub, (as the story ought to go), scientists have been making wonderful discoveries, such as the laws of gravity, DNA, and microorganisms. We’ve had a regular assembly line of Prometheuses in white coats bringing fire from the gods.

Something’s gone wrong with the assembly line. In an article published today at Minding the Campus, J. Scott Turner, director of the National Association of Scholars’ Diversity in the Sciences Project, examines how the gusher of government money into scientific research just isn’t doing the job of promoting scientific research. A recent Nature article spells out the astonishing truth that “disruptive” science, science that changes a field dramatically, has been declining spectacularly since the 1950s.

The Nature authors can’t figure out why—but Dr. Turner compares declining scientific discovery with increasing government money for the sciences, and the negative correlation is astonishing. Government funding encourages run-of-the-mill scientific research and crowds out the creative disruption of genuinely daring work.

Dr. Turner makes it clear that this isn’t just a question of a politicized science research establishment, although, of course, that’s made matters worse. The flow of government money itself is what’s stifling the ethic of scientific discovery and replacing it with an ethic of grant-seeking. The only way to restore an ethic of scientific discovery is to shut off the government spigot, whose main effect is to give the power to direct research money to the Colonel Blimps of American science.

The NAS thinks that’s a pretty good analysis, and we’re pursuing that as a strategic goal. We favor the pursuit of truth, and we favor reforming a system of science funding that’s producing diminishing returns for basic scientific discovery. Of course, we realize that government funding for basic science isn’t going to disappear overnight—and we realize that a reformed science system has to continue to support important goals, such as funding for scientific research that supports national security (e.g., artificial intelligence). Our policy recommendations will provide a realistic map that legislators can use to get to the destination. But we need to know where we want to go—and that’s to an America where government money stops smothering the ethic of scientific discovery.

America needs more Archimedean scientists—more Richard Feynmans, more John von Neumanns, more Claude Shannons, more James Watsons, more scientists dedicated to generating the lightning of a new idea. Government greenbacks can create a comfortable career, but they’re terrible at bringing lightning to earth. We need to start up the lightning again—and Dr. Turner’s article shows the way.

Until next week.

CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by the NAS Staff. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

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