“Inventions have long since reached their limit, and I see no hope for further development.” —Julius Sextus Frontinus (Roman engineer and Superintendent of Aqueducts, 1st century A.D.)
If Mr. Frontinus were around today, he might admit that he was wrong in his judgment of the human mind’s capacity for advancement. The Roman civilization was astounding in its achievements, but Mr. Frontinus was wrong in thinking that civilization had reached its peak; and we would be wrong in thinking the same of our world today. In fact, in our own lifetime, most of us have witnessed advances in science and technology that have helped make tremendous improvements in our quality of life. This improvement is a continuous process. But scientific advance requires extensive research, which is an expensive and long-term process that requires patience and perseverance.
In keeping with the general trend of expanding government activity, funding for scientific research has now become largely the prerogative of the government. Federal expenditure on research and development is at an all-time high in absolute and relative terms, with this year’s budget proposing $21.2 billion to conduct research in general science, space, and technology. Government agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and others are engaged in independent scientific research, and the National Science Foundation is a prominent supporter of scientific research in universities and colleges across the country.
But the key question that is rarely brought up is whether the funding of scientific research is a necessary function of the government. Science is so much the result of innovative ideas and collaboration between individuals that the government’s appropriate role is rather limited. The government’s only job is to fulfill its proper and legitimate functions—protecting individual rights and maximizing individual freedom—and it must do no more than that. According to Ayn Rand , “the recognition of individual rights entails the banishment of physical force from human relationships…the government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of force under objective control.” The government’s function is therefore to act against those who use physical force and endanger the peaceful affairs of others. In accordance with this principle, the only area of scientific research that clearly lies within the proper sphere of governmental activity is research for national defense. Therefore it must conduct its own research in military R&D.
However, this does not extend to the funding of scientific research in unrelated areas to which a great deal of federal money is presently devoted. Not only does the government overstep its boundaries by doing this, it violates the very freedom it is supposed to protect. It does this by denying people the right to use their money in whatever manner they desire and forcing them to use it according to the government’s evaluation of national interest or public benefit. The bottom line is that taxes are the source of all government funds—including those it spends on financing scientific research. The government has no moral right to take this money, which is the property of individual taxpayers, and use it in any way except for the direct protection of the taxpayers. If taxpayers do not want to spend their money on research, the government has no moral right to force them. Individual freedom is the fundamental basis of a civilized society. Without this guiding principle, other values hold little meaning. No matter how important science is to society, the principle of individual freedom is far more sacred.
The problem of government-funded research is not only moral; it also affects the long-term prosperity of society, which is based on the advancement of science. The nature of science is such that government financing tends to crowd out the investment made by private industry. Clearly, if people pay higher taxes, they would be less willing to spend additional money on private research investment or donations to research foundations. The danger is that as science becomes dependent on government, the rate of scientific development will slow. And unless we reverse this trend, we will retard the progress of our civilization, both morally and materially.