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Bias in Government Science

Mises Daily: Sunday, June 04, 2000 by

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Back in 1980, I applied to become a Congressional Fellow under a program that would place a philosopher or two into some Representative's office and be in on brainstorming various public policy proposals. I made it to the final list and was invited to go to John Hopkins University in Baltimore where we were interviewed by a selection panel.

When it came to interviewing me, the head of the panel, a professor from the University of Texas who has since died, turned to me and asked, "How do you envision working with Congress when as a libertarian you have objections to nearly everything they propose to do?"

I replied, "Perhaps sometimes it would be very helpful for a member of Congress to hear out, among other things, someone with an argument proposing that certain projects should not be pursued."

I did not get the appointment, needless to say, though my record of publication and teaching was unexceptionable.

At another time I had applied for support of a project in values and technology from some division of the National Science Foundation, this time only to test the waters and see what would they say about my proposal. This was a project to evaluate whether government funding of science projects could do justice to the incredible diversity of what is of value within the community supposed to be served by those projects.

I knew a good deal about Ludwig von Mises's and others' arguments about the impossibility of socialist calculation and I wanted to explore whether this might not have an impact on collective decision-making even in democratic societies. I also knew of the work of the Nobel laureates Kenneth J. Arrow and Amartya Sen, both of whom have made contributions to theories of public choice.

The response was rather harsh--various panelists, behind the shield of anonymity, lashed out at me for even suggesting that such decision-making might be flawed. Apparently they knew of my other writings critical of government regulation and wealth redistribution and found it offensive that I would even suggest that I might shed some light on an activity of which they were part, namely, apportioning some public funds to various projects deemed to be of greater worth than others so far as the public interest is concerned.

Now this is all anecdotal, of course, and perhaps in all other instances panelists are far less biased in what kinds of people and projects they deem to be worthy of government funding. But I doubt it.

Recently I have had occasion to read an insightful book by James D. Savage, Funding Science in America (Cambridge UP, 1999), in which the author chronicles the incredible bias that exists in government funding of scientific research and development. He focuses on but a small area, namely, where politicians funnel money to the universities of their region instead of institutions where the research might be done most competently.

It is just this sort of thing I was going to explore in my own project on whether government funding of science could keep from being biased, given the impossibility of rationally allocating funds taken from taxpayers.

Yet, when one discusses bias in scholarship, the only thing that seems to be targeted for criticism is the sort of work funded by the CIA or some other aggressively partisan body of the federal government. For example, a recent book appeared that chronicles how that organization used to fund certain intellectual magazines--for example, Encounter--which tended to publish articles supportive of U.S. objectives in the Cold War. Now such a practice has met with vitriolic denunciation.

Fine. What about the millions of bucks spent on government funded academic scholarship? What about the fact that government runs and controls the administration of the bulk of higher education institutions in America?

Do these not promote bias? Do these not tend to silence people in political science, history, political philosophy and related circles when it comes to whether government ought to be limited or have the expansive role in society that gives it the power to hand money to academicians?

It would appear that all that is stressed by most critics of government funding is that the wrong side is being given support. Feminists complain of male bias, blacks of white bias, gays of straight bias and so on and so on and they all complain that this is achieved because government favors some group instead of another.

In criticizing CIA funding, the allegation is that scholars receiving the money cannot be objective, impartial, even rational in their assessment of world politics. Their minds have been warped by money from the CIA--even in cases when they were entirely unaware of the source of the support.

As my favorite curmudgeon today, John Stossell of ABC-TV's 20/20 would say, "Give me a break." Might this critique be expanded? It is just like when the Left used to belly ache endlessly about having their right to freedom of association and speech violated by the House Committee on Unamerican Activities or some other government agency that attacked them, only to turn right around, once gaining favor with the feds, an enforce all sorts of politically correct restrictions in higher education.

In short, the Left was for freedom and independence so long as the violence done to it hurt their cause; they began to dismiss the importance of freedom and independence once the other side could be censored by similar means.

The best defense against bias in scholarship is competition and private funding. The least competitive agency in society is the federal government.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. Send him MAIL