After months of delay and uncertainty, the U.S. Congress finished work on the 2003 budget in February, approving large spending increases for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Science advocates worry that 2004 could still see a dramatically smaller boost. But would science necessarily suffer if government spending stopped rising? No, says Terence Kealey, a clinical biochemist and vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham in England. His 1996 book, The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, claimed that government science funding is unnecessary for economic growth, because science flourishes under the free market. Kealey is currently at work on a new book, Sex, Science and Profits, due out later this year.
SA: How did you come to your view that government funding of science doesn't stimulate economic growth?
TK: When I was a scientist in Britain during the 1980s, [former British prime minister] Margaret Thatcher was cutting funds for British university science to some extent. Everyone was saying that this would destroy British economic growth, while in fact this coincided with Britain's recovery. That made me look for the first time really critically at the common assumption that the government funding of science is essential for economic growth.
I very rapidly discovered that, of all the lead industrial countries, Japan--the country investing least in science--was growing fastest. Japanese science grew spectacularly under laissez-faire. Its science was actually purer than that of the U.K. or the U.S. The countries with the next least investment were France and Germany, and were growing next fastest. And the countries with the maximum investment were the U.S., Canada and U.K., all of which were doing very badly at the time.
SA: What historical evidence supports your idea?
TK: Two key pieces, one British, one American. The British one is very simple. The British agricultural and industrial revolutions took place in the 18th and 19th centuries in the complete absence of the government funding of science. It simply wasn't government policy. The British government only started to fund science because of the Great War [World War I]. The funding has increased heavily ever since, and there has been absolutely no improvement in our underlying rate of economic growth.
But the really fascinating example is the States, because it's so stunningly abrupt. Until 1940 it was American government policy not to fund science. Then, bang, the American government goes from funding something like $20 million of basic science to $3,000 million, over the space of 10 or 15 years. I mean, it's an unbelievable increase, which continues all the way to the present day. And underlying rates of economic growth in the States simply do not change. So these two historical bits of evidence are very, very powerful.
SA: Who would fund science if the government didn't?
TK: Research and development, which is a wider category, is largely funded by the private sector [for industrial purposes]. There's no doubt in my mind that if government didn't fund science, there would be significantly more private funding even for academic science. By "academic science" I mean pure or basic science as opposed to university science; the latter would dwindle, but the former would grow within industry. My belief--and it's based on historical evidence of how good American science was before 1940--is that you have significant foundations [that would fund pure science]. Indeed, in my book I pointed out that quite a lot of the big foundations of science preceded 1940, and then after the huge influx of American government funding, people said, "Well, the government's doing that," and they started turning their attention to other things. More recently we've had people like [Bill] Hewlett and [Dave] Packard and others leaving billions to endow research, as the government started to withdraw slightly from that activity.