Who Should Fund the Sciences?

Science is awesome. Physics, linguistics, chemistry, biology… Science defines and colours everyone’s daily life whether they notice it or not. But who should fund research in the sciences?

Many people say that the government must provide funding for the sciences. They claim that without government grants no new research would be done, no scientific progress. They claim in the words of Gordon Brown [1]:

The private sector generally does not have the incentive to invest in knowledge made publicly available because it could not earn a return. The government therefore funds this type of research, particularly the more fundamental, long-term research that is unlikely to have immediate application.

Or in the words of Vannevar Bush [1]:

There are areas of science in which the public interest is acute but which are likely to be cultivated inadequately if left without more support than will come from private sources. These areas […] should be advanced by active government support.

Many people tend to agree with this view, that private interest has no reason to fund any scientific research, especially the most abstract scientific questions. Many likely wonder: why would private interests care about the Higgs Boson? They reason that the government must fund this sort of research. Further they reason anyone opposed to governmental funding of science must hate science, must be against science, must be an anti-science nut-job.

But is this true? If there was no government, or no government funding, would there be no scientific research? No innovation? What is the historical record?

When looking at the historical record, one finds that private organisations have most certain funded science even without any direct benefit to themselves.

As Aaron Steelman recorded [2]:

Max Delbrück also considered the financial assistance he received from the Rockefeller Foundation to be critical. He began his career as a physicist but switched to genetics in the mid-1930s, eventually earning the Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on the genetic structure of viruses. “Without the encouragement of the Rockefeller Foundation in 1937 and their continuing support through the mid-forties,” Delbrück said, “I believe I would hardly have been able to make my contributions to biology.”

Or take J. P. Morgan who during the 1870s and 1880s funded Thomas Edison and laid the financial groundwork for the Edison Electrical Company [3]. Nikola Tesla, who discovered AC electricity, the first radio ways, and invented the Tesla coil, was funded by the business George Westinghouse [4]. Furthermore, John Dalton and Ernest Rutherford were both members of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, that provided laboratory facilities [5].

Learned societies, like the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, are a way which science could be funded without government funding. Learned societies are generally non-profit organisations that get funding through private donations. There are penalty of people that think even the most abstract questions of science are important to study. Without the government these people would likely fund the sciences. This goes for many other things that a great deal of people would think of no other way to fund than the government. There seems to be a general pessimism among many to believe that without the government nothing would be funded or paid for by private peoples because business cares only for profits.

Though for some established businesspeople may only care for their own pocket-books, most entrepreneurs care about the wants of the consumer and about innovation. But even if they didn’t what makes a politician any better. There are almost no former scientists that are now politicians. Most politicians are former lawyers, military men, or politicians. As Sheldon Richman [6] wrote,

Public Choice economics teaches, we are far safer in presuming that politicians and bureaucrats are motivated by re-election and career enhancement than by a desire to benefit people who must finance government activities whether they like them or not. Political officials are apt to look only at the immediate benefits to highly visible and well-organized constituencies, and not at the larger expense spread thinly over the rest of society.


Boards full of unaccountable political appointees spending other people’s money do not inspire confidence. Innovation and bureaucracy are words rarely found together in affirmative sentences. Knowledge is discovered through competition, but government centralization of research stifles competition. The authorities are not interested in funding what they regard as outside the mainstream.

Furthermore, governmental funds don’t generally go to the up and coming young scientists with innovative ideas but to older scientists already established at their universities or institutes. As Michael Anft [7] noted:

Private funds often help research centers support younger scientists with fresh ideas who haven’t yet been able to tap into the federal-grants pipeline.

The average age at which researchers receive their first federal grant is 43, with only 1 percent of grants from the largest federal funder, the National Institutes of Health, going to researchers 35 and younger.

Some leaders of research institutions, including Ronald Daniels, the president of the Johns Hopkins University, have sounded the alarm, saying many young researchers are leaving the field because they can’t afford to stay in it—and are taking the possibility of important discoveries with them. Recently, some members of Congress and the White House pledged to work to reverse the trend.

Some research institutes use private donations to help fund faculty positions for researchers under 40.

Science is awesome and definitely should be studied, but who should fund it? As with everything, every individual should look honestly at the evidence and think for themselves.


[7] Anft, M. (2015). When Scientific Research Can’t Get Federal Funds, Private Money Steps In. Retrieved from https://philanthropy.com/article/When-Scientific-Research/151777

[4] The Biography Website. (2015). Nikola Tesla. Retrieved from http://www.biography.com/people/nikola-tesla-9504443#wardenclyffe-project

[5] Chemical Heritage Foundation (n.d.) John Dalton. Retrieved from  http://www.chemheritage.org/discover/online-resources/chemistry-in-history/themes/the-path-to-the-periodic-table/dalton.aspx

[3] Netstate.com (2015). Connecticut: John Pierpont (J.P.) Morgan. Retrieved from http://www.netstate.com/states/peop/people/ct_jpm.htm

[1] Reid, G. (2014). Why Should the Taxpayer Fund Science and Research. Retrieved from https://www.ucl.ac.uk/public-policy/events/Why-fund-research/Graeme_Reid_Report

[6] Richman, S. (2005, March). “Government Should Fund Science?” The Freeman. Retrieved from http://fee.org/freeman/detail/government-should-fund-science

[2] Steelman, A. (1998, May). “The Free Market and Scientific Research.” The Freeman. Retrieved from http://fee.org/freeman/detail/the-free-market-and-scientific-research