George Will Wants the Government to Do Scientific Research

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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).