Letters

I am responding to your June editorial "Should governments fund research," (see Laser Focus World, p. 156). The basic argument that government funding displaces industrial funding is a very narrow-minded and simplistic view. It might be correct for basic engineering applications, but hardly for scientific research in general. Sure if government funds lots of zipper research, ABC Zippers won`t fund very much, and if government gives it up, ABC will probably take u¥the slack. But this argument

Letters

Readers take sides on research funding

I am responding to your June editorial "Should governments fund research," (see Laser Focus World, p. 156). The basic argument that government funding displaces industrial funding is a very narrow-minded and simplistic view. It might be correct for basic engineering applications, but hardly for scientific research in general. Sure if government funds lots of zipper research, ABC Zippers won`t fund very much, and if government gives it up, ABC will probably take u¥the slack. But this argument lacks an important consideration.

Government-funding of research at public and private universities not only delivers significant economic benefits, but also trains the scientists and engineers of the future. If government stops funding research, how will students learn to do research? Sure, maybe ABC will hire a couple of apprentices, and maybe they can train them to be adequate zipper researchers, but that is clearly a prescription for total disaster. We would be rapidly wiped out by nations whose governments funded research and research training of scientists and engineers.

There are other points worth mentioning, involving very basic research with very-long-term implications. Could you seriously think the laser or the transistor could have been invented without government-sponsored re search? These things required decades of development of quantum mechanics, solid-state band theory, and an army of highly educated researchers. It`s inconceivable that XY¥Industrial Lighting Inc. or RST Triodes Inc. would mount projects in quantum theory for the eventual development of coherent light sources or tiny solid-state vacuum tubes. In fact in today`s competitive industrial world, businesses who devote too much time and money to long-term research face ruin or become targets for take-over artists who realize that quick profits can be made by eliminating the research costs.

What about medical research? Should we have relied on industry to do the research in molecular biology, immunology, molecular genetics, and so forth that is now giving us powerful tools to fight disease. How about nuclear medicine? Should we have eliminated government funding for public-health research, hoping ABC Cholera Inc. and XY¥Typhoid Inc. would take u¥the slack? Can you say with a straight face we would have been better off with no government-funded health research?

Some of these arguments are totally ludicrous. Government taxes industry for the money to fund research. Only a few percent (depending on how it is defined) of government spending pays for research. Eliminate it and corporate taxes might decrease by one percent. This is supposed to trigger a wave of corporate spending on vital long-term research? Only an economist could think of this, although I am sure corporate CEOs would be rubbing their hands in glee thinking of how this money could be used for larger stock options and golden parachutes.

Government exists to do things that people and corporations cannot or will not do. You are probably correct that government funding of engineering research projects that represent incremental advances in technology may displace private funding, but "should governments end research?" There is an easy answer to this. Simply look around you at governments that fund a lot of research (for example, USA, Japan, Germany, Switzerland, Netherlands) and governments that don`t (for example, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia). Ready to make the switch?

Dana D. Dlott

Professor of Chemistry

University of Illinois, Urbana, IL

E-mail: [email protected]

Ethics of government funding ignored

I was happy to read the editorial in the June issue "Should governments fund research?" For too long I have read and been sickened by the Washington Report section of Laser Focus World. The thrust of the report is how the United States government, via taxation, forces people to fund the photonics industry. While Terence Kealy [in The Economic Laws of Scientific Research, St. Martin`s Press, NY, NY, 1996] has arguably showed that government funding of research does more harm than good economically, I believe the ethical component of the funding has been vastly ignored.

The ethical component of this issue comes out when one looks at the people involved. After all, governments consist of people, people create wealth for funding, and people do research. Asking if governments should fund research is asking if our elected representatives can legally compel United States citizens to financially support scientific researchers.

From my experience in the photonics industry, practicing "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" is common and respected. Yet, I can hardly see the "win-win" aspect of forcing others to fund research projects. I could not bring myself to force others to fund my livelihood. Such theft is illegal, yet it is legal for many people to appoint someone to do their dirty work, that is, to elect representatives to appropriate their needed funds. Still, I do not choose to live that way, as I would have to accept that everyone else could force me to fund their projects. I choose the "win-win" relationships of the free market and voluntary charities over the "win-lose" and inevitably "lose-lose" relationships of the welfare state and mandatory government charities.

Brian T. Schwart¥

Santa Clara, CA

Practical downside to government funding

This is the letter I wanted to write last time you wrote about government funding research. The answer is still the same--NO. Here`s why.

For government to fund research it must collect money from people. This is done via taxes, which makes people of all stripes parties to the resulting process. Well, if I didn`t choose to spend my money on "global warming" (or whatever) research, it doesn`t matter, because someone has made my decision without my input.

The next problem is that government funding is basically biased to low-risk, politically correct expenditures. That gives us the least bang for each dollar expended, because government employees are by definition risk avoiders so it will never change.

Further, you have the problem of getting anything new past the "review committee." After we developed a new technique for making ultrahigh-resolution images of breast tissue (in 3-D), guess what the committee found? That they didn`t understand our new paradigm so by "definition" we couldn`t know what we were talking about.

Shrinking government is the only answer, and if that means that government-sponsored research goes, so be it. Want to encourage research? Change the tax laws to make capital gains held for five years tax exempt and all expenditures deductable in the year expended. Then get out of the way and watch the economy take off.

On my Website (www.geocities.com/ HotSprings/Spa/2106) you can find a proposal for a rewrite of the tax code that will spur more research and economic activity than you could believe possible. Kee¥u¥the great work.

Zot Barazzotto

Xenia, OH

E-mail: [email protected]

A book with answers

Delighted to read your editorial in the June issue. I would like to recommend for general reading the book Investing in Innovation: Creating a Research and Innovation Policy That Works, edited by Lewis M. Branscomb and James H. Keller, published by MIT Press. This book contains some ideas that might be interesting.

L. N. Durvasula

DARPA

Arlington, VA

E-mail: [email protected]

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