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Home Publications Blogs Beat the Press George Will Wants the Government to Do Scientific Research

George Will Wants the Government to Do Scientific Research

Sunday, 18 August 2013 08:21

George Will, who likes to mock any and everything the government does, has apparently decided that it is very good at supporting scientific research. He is outraged over the sequester, which is bringing a halt to several major research projects at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

This is truly a fascinating line of argument from Will. He says that we need the government to do this research because it will not produce near term benefits:

"In the private sector, where investors expect a quick turnaround, it is difficult to find dollars for a 10-year program."

Okay, but this argument implies that the government is not necessarily run by a bunch of bozos. If it were then giving money to NIH would be the same thing as throwing it in the toilet. This means that Will thinks that money spent at NIH actually has useful benefits.

Now let's carry this logic one step further. Suppose we gave additional funding, not just for basic research, but for actually developing drugs and bringing them through the clinical testing and FDA approval process. We already have Will on record saying that NIH is not run by bozos, so this means that he must think that we can in principle replace the patent supporting research by Pfizer, Merck and the other drug companies with funding from the government. (This doesn't mean the government does the research. It could contract out the research, possibly even with Pfizer and Merck.) Let's even hypothesize for the sake of argument, that a dollar of research funding supported by patent monopolies is more efficient than a dollar of funding that passes through the government.

In order to compare the publicly funded route with the patent supported route we would have to weigh the relative efficiency of the research dollars under the two systems with the enormous waste associated with patent monopolies. If a drug was developed through a publicly supported system then it could immediately be sold as a generic for $5 to $10 per prescription instead of selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars per prescription. No drug company would have an incentive to lie about its effectiveness or hype the drug for inappropriate uses. Also, nearly everyone would be able to get access to the drug without haggling with insurers or government agencies.

In fact, the public system would have advantages in the research process itself. A condition of public support could be that all research findings are publicly posted on the web as soon as practical. This would allow researchers to learn from each others' successes and failures and to avoid unnecessary duplication. That will not happen with patent supported research where all the findings are proprietary information.

These are the sorts of questions about drug research that serious people would ask if they acknowledge that the government can usefully fund research. But don't expect to see such follow up questions posed either by Will or anyone else in the Washington Post (except in Wonkblog).


Comments (8)Add Comment
Government vs. private
written by Robert Salzberg, August 18, 2013 9:10
There are 2 other huge reasons for government based drug development.

1. Profit based research generally ignores conditions that only affect a small percentage of people because even if successful, they wouldn't generate big profits.

2. Profit based research focuses on long term treatments on symptoms rather than cures.
Will has a history of supporting Gov't Medical Research
written by Martinmc, August 18, 2013 9:42
Like many conservatives who find an exception, it has to do with a member of his family. Will just makes a pretense of intellectual rationality. But, if that's what it takes to get NIH more funding (I've got family members who would benefit, too), I'm fine with it.
what a dishonest hack
written by Peter K., August 18, 2013 10:07
His point is that Obama's stimulus caused the defunding!

"Unfortunately, recent government behavior has damaged the cause of basic science...It has sown confusion about the difference between supporting scientific research and practicing industrial policy with subsidies — often incompetently and sometimes corruptly dispensed — for private corporations oriented to existing markets rather than unimagined applications. And beginning with the indiscriminate and ineffective 2009 stimulus, government has incited indiscriminate hostility to public spending."

So it was government behavior and not the 24-7 wall-to-wall propaganda put out by the right that the government is incompetent? He expects the reader to believe that? Hopefully Bezos loses the column.
Chait on Will's hypocrisy
written by Peter K., August 18, 2013 10:12

"Here’s one Will column, a long sneering polemic against Obama’s warnings about sequestration. It involves the use of words like “forfend”:

"Batten down the hatches — the sequester will cut $85?billion from this year’s $3.6?trillion budget! Or: Head for the storm cellar — spending will be cut 2.3?percent! Or: Washington chain-saw massacre — we must scrape by on 97.7?percent of current spending! Or: Chaos is coming because the sequester will cut a sum $25?billion larger than was just shoveled out the door(supposedly, but not actually) for victims of Hurricane Sandy! Or: Heaven forfend, the sequester will cut 47?percent as much as was spent on the AIG bailout! Or: Famine, pestilence and locusts will come when the sequester causes federal spending over 10 years to plummet from $46?trillion all the way down to $44.8?trillion! Or: Grass will grow in the streets of America’s cities if the domestic agencies whose budgets have increased 17 percent under President Obama must endure a 5?percent cut! …

Today, while Obama prepares a governmental power grab to combat global warming, sensible Americans, tuckered out with apocalypse fatigue, are yawning through the catastrophe du jour, the sequester. They say: Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the hamsters of sequestration."
I can't stop commenting
written by Peter K., August 18, 2013 10:25

Ronnie Raygun:

"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem."

And a star was born: George Will.

The fault, dear George, is not in our stars, But in ourselves.
Keep Your Government Hands Off My Socialized Competition
written by Last Mover, August 18, 2013 10:59

To understand the incoherent ravings of George Will against government (beyond the current exception) one need only take a closer look at his beloved sport of baseball.

Major league baseball teams share about a third of their revenue equally with each other, something Rush Limbaugh calls socialism.

They do this in their self interest. They know if they didn't, market failure would soon overcome the sport of baseball because eventually only one team would survive with no other team with which it could compete. At best, no one wants to attend a game with lopsided scores so heavily skewed to the winning team with the most revenue, it's not worth watching.

It's truly a way to level the playing field, effectively with redistributive socialism designed to create equal opportunity to compete from below rather than impose artificial unequal outcomes from above, raved about so viciously by the likes of George Will and Rush Limbaugh.

Baseball teams know they need each other in order to compete with each other, in order to be successful. It really is a case of using socialized competition to drive players to their highest valued use.

In direct contrast, George Will, Rush Limbaugh and the like actually despise and suppress competition in the name of free markets outside controlled arenas like sports, where markets are specifically designed to undermine competition from cradle to grave.

As far as they're concerned, the equivalent of winner-take-all lopsided scores so skewed the ratio of winners to losers at 1% to 99% is still not a problem.

After all, lets not confuse the entertainment value of sports competition with that of competition among economic predators who do the heavy lifting for the economy.

One drives down price and drives up value, while the other drives up price and drives down value.
written by Dennis, August 18, 2013 11:04
Dean forgot to throw in his usual reference to Ben Goldacre's 'Bad pharma', which illustrates diverse mechanisms how privately funded medical research typically works grossly inefficient. Besides the wasteful marketing costs (in many instances just a euphemism for corrupting scientists and physicians), systematic under-reporting of untoward side-effects means that patients take part in trials whose results do not benefit the public (as they are told to get their consent), so that patented medications will get prescribed far too often.
written by Michael, August 19, 2013 9:04
"Suppose we gave additional funding, not just for basic research, but for actually developing drugs and bringing them through the clinical testing and FDA approval process."

Charles Sable is someone who has investigated how this might actually work. His work on experimentalist organizations, learning and accountability in an administrative state is very much worth reading.


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About Beat the Press

Dean Baker is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, his latest being The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive. Read more about Dean.