To Rescue Science, We Must Turn Off the Funding Spigot

During a discussion about whether government funding of academic science was a good idea, I argued that it was a net negative—a prominent physicist once told me that there was no particle physics before World War II. I remember thinking to myself: “Who’s going to tell him? No particle physics? Maxwell? Planck? Rutherford? Einstein?”

My interlocutor reflected a widespread assumption that science would be impossible without the $100 billion annual stream of research funding currently flowing into universities, most of it from the federal fisc. The James Webb Telescope is often trotted out as the killing example—a few years ago, it was the Hubble Telescope. Who would fund that, except for governments? Another oft-ridden hobbyhorse is the need to keep science uncorrupted by vested private interests. Who can ensure science’s objectivity if businesses are footing the bill? Yet, businesses provide less than six percent of the total revenues for academic research, hardly a danger. All feed into a cheap rhetorical trick: if you argue against government funding of science, you’re “anti-science.” Or part of the Republican “war on science.” Or—why not, in for a penny, in for a pound—the “ultra-MAGA Republican war on science?”

One can hardly blame them, though, because they don’t know any other way. Eighty years ago, the government funded only a minuscule portion of university research, largely because Congress was unclear on what public interest would be served. Academic scientists, for their part, were suspicious of government funds, largely because of the very heavy strings attached.

World War II changed all that, and we all know why—Oppenheimer. In the aftermath of the war, the federal government embarked on a hopeful experiment to harness academic science to secure peace and promote national prosperity.[1] To carry out the experiment, there has since been an exponentially rising stream of public money flowing into academic research, constituting about 60 percent of total expenditures on academic research. We are now three generations—five, depending upon how you count them—into that Big Rock Candy Mountains world so that there remains little, if any, institutional memory of it being any other way.

And what’s wrong with that?

By some measures, academic research appears to be thriving. In 2022, American scientists published over 455,000 papers—out of 3.3 million worldwide—landing in more than 46,000 scientific journals. Amazing productivity, right? It’s only impressive if you think that publications are a reliable indicator of scientific discovery. A recent analysis suggests that is looking unlikely: since the beginning of the exponential rise in government funding of academic science, the incidence of so-called “disruptive” publications—publications that have changed the direction of a field—has declined in an almost mirror image of exponential decline.[2] Add to this the fulminating crisis of untrustworthiness of the scientific literature, and the hopeful experiment begun in 1950 appears to be circling the drain.

Can we pull science back?

My urgent hope is that it can be. To do so, however, the illness must be diagnosed correctly, and the Big Rock Candy Mountains illusion is a major impediment to getting the diagnosis right. For example, academic scientists are said to be publishing too many papers, leading to “information overload”, but this is chalked up to the problem of “publish or perish.” Poor things, the reasoning seems to be, careers depend upon publishing many papers, so no wonder some succumb to publishing meaningless papers that serve no purpose but to puff up a CV. And there is no shortage of bogus journals to accommodate whatever dreck is sent their way. Root out “publish or perish”, and all will come right.

It won’t come right, though, because this diagnosis fails to see why the “publish or perish” syndrome exists in the first place. In fact, “publish or perish,” along with a host of other ills, is incentivized by the government funding model established in 1950. Far from being a boon to science, funding has grown to the point where it undercuts the very thing it was supposed to promote, namely curiosity-driven research in universities. It has done so by destroying the culture of basic science that had existed before World War II—the “small science ecosystem,” as I have called it—and built in its stead the Big Science Cartel, an interwoven network of the financial and political interests of institutions—universities, government, publishing houses, activist groups.

In the Big Science Cartel, academic scientists have been reduced to being the turnkeys for the government revenue streams that prop up the Cartel. “Publish or perish” is the mechanism by which the Cartel enforces its interests.

The rescue plan for academic science should now be clear. If we want to restore a vigorous culture of scientific discovery in this country—and it’s my fervent wish that we should—we need urgently to rescue science from the grips of the Big Science Cartel.

At the recent Heterodox Academy Conference held in Chicago, we organized a symposium on Rescuing Science.[3] The speakers included Prof Terence Kealey, who offered a critical look at the economic assumptions behind public funding of science—and has found them wanting—; Dr Seaver Wang of The Breakthrough Institute, who offered his experience of being a scientist outside the grip of the Big Science Cartel. I outlined some of the ideas we’ve been working on to restore scientists’ intellectual freedom and autonomy.

You can see a video of my presentation, Rescuing Science, here, which includes a number of policy reforms we have been working on here at the NAS that just could do the trick. One of them we have already crafted into model legislation—the Indirect Costs Reduction Act—that would help guide legislators to enact the necessary reforms. We have more ideas, so have a look!

[1] Bush, V. (1945). Science. The Endless Frontier. A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, July 1945 Washington, D.C.

[2] Park, M., E. Leahey, et al. (2023). Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. Nature 613(7942): 138-144.
But see also: Macher, J. T., C. Rutzer, et al. (2024). Is there a secular decline in disruptive patents? Correcting for measurement bias. Research Policy 53(5): 104992.

[3] The full conference program may be seen here.

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  • J. Scott Turner

    J Scott Turner is Emeritus Professor of Biology at SUNY ESF in Syracuse, New York. He is the author of The Extended Organism: the Physiology of Animal-Built Structures (2000, Harvard University Press), and Purpose and Desire. What Makes Something “Alive” and Why Modern Darwinism Has Failed to Explain It (2017, HarperOne). He is presently Director of Science Programs at the National Association of Scholars.

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2 thoughts on “To Rescue Science, We Must Turn Off the Funding Spigot

  1. Remember also how highly politicized this funding has become. As an example, in the late 1990s NSF had its “its Professional Opportunities for Women in Research and Education (POWRE) program”. Almost $13 million of research funding that only women could apply for. How such overt discrimination was permitted is unknown, but it was.

  2. ” In the aftermath of the war, the federal government embarked on a hopeful experiment to harness academic science to secure peace and promote national prosperity.”

    I disagree — I argue that we were at war from December of 1941 to December of 1991 — a full fifty years — and that the Federal Government sought to harness science for national defense purposes through all of it.

    Stalin was not a Boy Scout, and everyone knew that. Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in March of 1946 — less than a year after the Nazi surrender, and Patton had been advocating going on to Russia when he died in a suspicious auto accident in December of 1945. The Cold War got real when the Soviets successfully detonated an atomic bomb in 1949.

    But it was the 1957 launch of Sputnik that really woke people up and led to the 1948 National Defense Education Act which really was the origin of lots of Federal money being available to scientists in general. It was a clear national defense focus, with a focus on physics — but it was a broad focus including undergraduates who would then become science teachers in K-12. This is when the PSSC Physics curriculum was developed.

    The clear focus on this was “National Defense” and the initial student loans were called “National Defense Student Loans.”

    Things greatly expanded with the 1965 Higher Ed Act, part of LBJ’s Great Society and having a general “education is good” focus, but a lot of the funding for the sciences really started a couple decades earlier and with a very clear National Defense focus.

    One of the goals of the Cold War was to prevent countries from going Communist, as China had. This started with the Greek Civil War (1946-49) and involved military actions in Korea and Vietnam — but a lot more of it were psychological operations attempting to win the “hearts and minds” of the Third World. I argue that a lot of the Federally funded research into the humanities of the 1960s and 1970s was along these lines — and the Soviets used things like the Bolshoi Theater (ballet) and classical orchestras for similar purposes.

    My point is that the Cold War ENDED in 1991 and if you look at the problems we have had with the funding of science, they have all been post-1991. This may be a coincidence, and it may not be one — in either case, I think it is important to clarify that peace did not arrive in 1945 and that national defense concerns (to greater and lesser extents) drove Federal support of Science throughout all of the 50 years war.

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