Margaret Thatcher Was Wrong: Science Doesn’t Need Nobel Prizes To Thrive

  • Date: 19/06/14
  • Terence Kealey, The Daily Telegraph

Britain led the world through the Industrial Revolution with minimal state funding for scientific enterprise 

It was 1985 when, at the height of her glory, Mrs Thatcher’s office invited me to discuss the economics of science with her. She opened the discussion with “we need more Nobel Prizes”.

Margaret Thatcher glared as she made that assertion, because she knew I disagreed, and after about 10 minutes of discussion, when we were failing to find common ground, she repeated that “we need more Nobel Prizes”.

To which I responded “You mean like the Soviet Union?” The Prime Minister was not pleased by my response, because she knew that, thanks to its government’s funding of science, the USSR had won many Nobels (but its economy was collapsing) while Japan, whose government funded the least science in the developed world, had won few (yet its economy was then growing fabulously). There was a short pause before she replied with “Don’t be so silly young man.”

But the question stands. Why should governments fund science? The standard justification is that without it the economy would grind to a halt because growth is ultimately dependent on science, which only government will fund.

Yet there is no evidence to support that suggestion. Thus Britain led the world through the Industrial Revolution in the absence of significant state funding for science. The British government started to fund it, initially for military reasons, during the First World War, but the perpetuation of it during the subsequent peacetime eras did not stimulate Britain’s rate of economic growth.

Equally, the US became the richest and most technologically-advanced country in the world around 1890, also in the absence of significant state funding. The American government started to fund science, initially for military reasons, during the Second World War, but, again, the continuation of that funding during the subsequent peacetime era did not stimulate America’s growth.

Meanwhile, the French and German governments were generously funding science during the 19th century, but the economic historian Angus Maddison has shown that – contrary to myth – they failed to catch up with British or American GDP per capita. Germany’s economic miracle was a post-1945 phenomenon that was driven by its conversion to free markets.

Indeed, a 2003 survey entitled The Sources of Economic Growth in OECD Countries, found that only privately-funded research stimulated economic growth in the world’s 21 leading industrialised countries between 1971 and 1998. Publicly-funded research had no such effect.

So, although there is no evidence that governments need to fund it, people none the less assume that science would be neglected by the private sector. Tell that to Microsoft or AstraZeneca! And tell that to the 19th century, when Britain produced Darwin, Kelvin and Faraday, and the US produced Edison, Tesla and the Wright brothers among other giants.

But the lobbying is relentless because everybody wants “free” science. Companies look for corporate welfare; researchers love government money because it comes with no obligations other than to the research community; while the public loves David Attenborough.

And politicians adore funding science because the budgets are relatively modest, yet the kudos is vast – do you remember in 2000, when Bill Clinton and Tony Blair announced jointly the sequencing of the human genome, as if they and Hillary and Cherie had been wielding the pipettes themselves? But who was standing on Clinton’s right when he made his historic announcement in the White House? None other than Craig Ventor of Celera, the private company that had so dramatically accelerated the project. And who would have been standing on Blair’s right had it fallen on him to have made the global announcement from No 10? Why, Mike Dexter of the Wellcome Trust, because that was the charity that had so powered the UK contribution.

Society needs science, and companies and charities would fund it if government did not. It is only because governments have crowded out the private sources of science that we have fewer great charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (assets $38 billion) and fewer great science companies such as Volkswagen, Samsung, Roche and Intel, each of which spent over $10 billion on research and development last year. Some 7 per cent of industrial research, moreover, is spent on pure science.

Private money is better than government money for research because governments already have too much power. A healthy society needs a galaxy of private funders of science so that they can challenge each other – and government – in ways that optimise the search for truth. So let the government step back and let the private sector step forward to consolidate a healthier research culture and to give the taxpayer a break.

Terence Kealey is vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham and the author of Sex, Science and Profits: How People Evolved to Make Money. He is a member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council

The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 2014