America’s hodge-podge of scientists, institutions, and funding

September 1, 2010

Fred Schwarz, in The Uncertainty Principle, argues that an economy’s ability to generate innovative companies results not only from the availability of seed capital, but the structure of the early-stage investing ecosystem:

While scientific research in other industrialized nations is centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic, in America it is competitive and entrepreneurial.  This is not to say that politics plays no role in deciding how American science is funded; far from it. But in America, governmental sources of funding are much more diffuse (half a dozen federal agencies and departments spend at least $1 billion a year on basic research), and private sources are much more numerous, than in most European or East Asian nations. It all adds up to strength through pluralism.

Schwarz cites a few specific American strengths:

  • The profusion of funding sources makes it easier for researchers with good ideas to shop around and find a willing partner.
  • Independent state universities compete for the best and brightest research.  “Americans can consider themselves fortunate that except for the service academies, there is no system of national universities.
  • All our competitive factors – within and between institutions, funding sources, states, federal agencies, and military branches – benefit from “…the absence of any federal Department of Science and Technology –  despite the assumption in many quarters that if something is important, it must have its own cabinet secretary.”

Schwarz adds a counterpoint: Europe and China may have an advantage for funding big-ticket items like the Superconducting Super Collider, because they’re “good at spending lots of money with little squawking from the citizens.”  However he then favorably quotes Professor William Happer of Princeton who called the SSC’s demise “a tragedy for science” but also cautioned: “I would rather accept mistakes made by the people or their elected representatives than live with mistakes made by scientific bureaucrats.”

Schwarz’s conclusion sums it up nicely:

America’s hodge-podge of scientists, institutions, and funding agencies – imperfect though it may be –  is the closest thing the world has to a free market in science, and the results can be seen in Nobel Prizes, citations, and the steady influx of researchers from abroad who know that the United States is the land of scientific opportunity.

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