From David Sinky on subsidies for science, by email

Since it seems that the supply of talented researchers in any specific area is likely fairly inelastic in the short term, to what extent do you see cash funding (as opposed to supply of talent) as a major constraint to specific scientific research in either the short and medium terms?

>Even if we believe that this funding will lead to a proportional increase in clean-tech research, I suspect that returns may be quite low since the impacts of this funding would seem to be:

1. Pulling smart people from their private sector efforts into publicly funded research

2. Funding marginal projects by lower quality researchers where returns are likely to be significantly lower than average returns to research funding (which may be quite low already)

3. Increasing the funds available to established, high-status labs and researchers.  If a large percentage of a lab’s output is due to the abnormally high human capital of its lead researchers, the binding constraint is their time and mental resources rather than cash so the returns on additional cash would not be very high.

4. Allowing institutions that were already going to fund this sort of research to direct additional funds to other priorities such as undergraduate academics (stem or otherwise), student amenities or other unrelated research initiatives.

I suspect much of this logic also applies to donations to “cancer research charities” which I believe may be one of the single least efficient use of charitable dollars.

In general, I am disappointed that neither the right nor the left seems interested in trying to estimate the return to marginal government spending on research (either in aggregate or for specific programs).

The points above lead me to suspect it is quite low in aggregate but I’m open to being convinced otherwise if you think there is good evidence to do so.


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