Can "basic science" get along without government grants, labs, and programs?
Ayn Rand emphasized that government should not involve itself in
science work “for the sake of science.” She would never accept the idea
that certain kinds of science cannot flourish unless the government
patronizes it. But more than that, she feared that any science that the
government did, it would pervert toward a tyrannical end.
In Atlas Shrugged, one of the most despicable and pathetic
villains she created is Robert Stadler, PhD. Dr. Stadler breaks new
ground in theoretical physics, and then suggests that the government
should finance the kind of research he and others did. He reasoned that
no business tycoon, “mogul,” or investor would ever take an active
interest in “pure” science. But, said Ayn Rand, he has a problem:
[T]here is no such thing as “non-practical knowledge,” nor any sort of “disinterested action.”
So some one will profit in some way from any sort of work. Why doesn’t Dr. Stadler see that? A former student charges that he
scorn[s] the use of [his] science for the purpose and profit of life.
What does he do instead? He
deliver[s] [his] science to the service of death, to the
only practical purpose it can ever have for looters: to inventing
weapons of coercion and destruction.
Specifically, the State Science Institute, which he nominally
directs, uses the groundbreaking principle he discovers to build an
awesome and terrifying weapon: Project X, or the Xylophone. This is a
battery of sonic cannons that can pulverize any person, animal, or
inanimate object at a range of a hundred miles. In one of the last
scenes of the novel, Dr. Stadler tries to seize command of the Project
as his society collapses around him. But someone else “beats him to the
punch,” and the two men fight over the controls and trigger the
Xylophone. They kill each other, the crew, and thousands of people in
several cities in the upper Midwest. Osama bin Laden would surely envy
that scene. And so would Reinhard Heydrich and Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the
two Obergruppenführeren and chiefs of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (RSHA, or State Security High Office of the SS).
Checkered history of government science
No one has tried to build Project X or anything like it. But the
United States does have a sad record of misguided scientific
experiments. In the Tuskegee Experiment, the United States Public Health
Service experimented with syphilis on 600 black men without
telling them all the risks. At least 128 men died that way between 1932
and 1972. The shock and outrage from that story still linger.
(Furthermore, one of Ayn Rand’s colleagues commented directly on it.)
That might explain why many still believe that the United States
government, among other things,
- Experiments on its own military service members, with highly dubious
vaccines against anthrax and other communicable diseases, and
- Wages chemical warfare on its own people, by deploying aerial poisons from the exhausts of commercial airliners.
Edwin H. Aldrin, Jr. unpacks experiments from the descent stage of the
Lunar Module of Apollo XI. Photo: Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong/NASA
Outer-space research is one of the most ironic stories about
government funding of “pure science” in the USA, Europe, and elsewhere.
For one thing, it is one of the least expensive line items in the
budgets of the countries involved. But politicians of all stripes still
begrudge every dollar (or euro, or yen, or ruble, but not necessarily
every yuan) that any government spends on space. As Actor Hal Holbrook
says in the 1977 motion picture Capricorn One:
Is it really worth twenty billion to go to another
planet? What about cancer? What about the slums? How much does it cost?
How much does any dream cost!?
Aside from the lurid plot of that film, most people have forgotten,
if they ever learned, several key facts about Projects Mercury, Gemini,
and Apollo in the United States. The United States ran Project Mercury
to show that they, like the Soviets, could easily build a
low-earth-orbit strategic bomber. When President John F. Kennedy
negotiated the first nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union,
Project Mercury was far less urgent. But its successor projects, Gemini
and Apollo, went on. Why? Because by then the projects had their own
constituency. They also had a new motive: to build a modern “wonder of
Project Apollo eventually died, because American taxpayers did
ask “how much it costs” and what they got for it. True enough, those
who worked on the project invented many other devices and concepts that
we use today. But no one can prove that Project Apollo alone prompted these things, or brought them to development, and then to market, any faster.
The shuttle program succeeded to Project Apollo. While it ran, it was
the only way to live heavy cargoes into space. But the program, with
its flawed design concept and aging equipment, couldn’t last forever,
either. And now that it has folded, private companies have started to
build space services of their own.
Private enterprise in space
No private entrepreneur could hope to see a return on investment
against a “competitor” that sold its services at such losses. That is
why no private space-lift industry yet exists. The Boeing Group briefly
developed its Sea Launch system, to launch cargoes from a ship sailing along the Equator. But that venture almost died from lack of customers.
Those customers have no government program to go to anymore. That
might have saved Sea Launch. But Sea Launch is not the only venture.
- The X Prize,
and its one proved success, Virgin Galactic. (The X Prize Foundation
cites Charles A. Lindbergh’s prize-winning trans-Atlantic solo flight as
- The International Space Elevator Consortium, a rival foundation trying to spur development of a “skyhook” to lift cargoes into orbit at comfortable speeds.
No one would have predicted either during Project Apollo. But Ayn
Rand came close. She always said that if anyone could make a profit on
any human action, he would find a way to make it work and pay without breaking the bank.
The Ayn Rand model for pure research
In Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand did more than show how
government funding of science can go horribly wrong. She showed how an
“abstract scientist” could make his science pay.
Any business investor or tycoon, or any engineer, would take an
interest in advancing even abstract science. He would see how he could
make an abstract discovery pay concrete dividends. So
the same character who condemns Dr. Stadler for “deliver[ing] [his]
science to the service of death,” finds a way to make his own science
pay. He builds his own laboratory, runs his own experimental program,
and gives lectures, for a fee, to interested businessmen and engineers.
In one sense, this character imitates Thomas Edison. Like him, he
runs his own laboratory and sells inventions to keep it up. But in
another respect he surpasses Edison. In an ideal Ayn Rand world, Edison
would pay him for the first right to see what he discovers.
This shows the most important thing that Ayn Rand said: all science is practical.
When human beings know more about how the world works, they can use
what they know to make their lives, and other people’s lives, better.
So government has no need to fund “basic research.” And indeed, such funding puts human liberty in danger.
The Tuskegee Experiment arguably deprived 600 men, and their families,
of their liberty, by deception if not by force. The Holocaust stands
today as the most horrible real-life example of government science gone
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