Thanks to an incredibly dumb op-ed about the wages of professors and the time they spend doing their jobs, I got sucked into a twitter discussion about public funding of universities. Given that the students of Quebec are striking and protesting because they feel the public should fund the entirely of their education, and given the occasional ramblings of a Senator about the National Science Foundation, this is hardly an, dare I say it, academic question.
To be clear, I admit: the business model of higher education is broken. I doubt you will find too many academics to disagree. We have spiraling costs that are pricing our product (especially in the US) at rates that our students cannot afford (again, Quebec? Ha!).
Anyhow, the question was raised about whether and what research should the public fund. I have already argued elsewhere that research and teaching are fundamentally intertwined. But the question is: which kinds of research should the public fund? My first take is, of course, as an academic to say: heaps of it. Universities exist to create and disseminate knowledge. This knowledge is a public good--while journals tend to be annoying, the reality is that the ideas, the findings, the studies get released and shared. Not all of this improves the world, some research leads nowhere (hence the word--re-search). But the general idea is that we are trying to study pretty much everything because understanding is superior to ignorance.
And it turns out to be a good deal for society. Most universities are associated with economic dynamism--where biotechnology firms and computer businesses develop and so on. Studies (by the those damned self-interested academics) have tended to find that money spent on universities are a far better multiplier than prisons, for example.
But my twitter buddy raised the question of where the money should go? Shouldn't the public decide what kinds of stuff gets funded adn what does not? And the answer is: it already does. More money goes to the hard sciences, engineering, medical schools, and business schools than to literature departments, music and dance programs, anthropology, and the rest. Professors who work in the former fields get paid more than those in the latter. More grants go to the former than the latter. Sure, we could spend even less on this other stuff because it may not have as clear a connection to the economy, but, of course, that would mean we are ignoring one of America's export industries--Hollywood. American movies, television shows, music, and books sell very well abroad, so should we not fund programs for the arts, just for pure economic reasons?
We can try to target certain sectors (although putting such decisions in the hands of politicians may not be wise), but the reality is that we don't know what parts of the economy will need the most research and knowledge in twenty or thirty years. Money will move to whatever is hot. Middle East studies today, economic integration fifteen years ago, the Soviet Union thirty years ago, and so on. May not be wise to be fickle, but we really don't know what we are going to need. For instance, the US army found that anthropologists might help them figure out Afghanistan. Of course, don't blame the Anthropologists for the mission not working out so well. The point is that more knowledge is better than less, that understanding the world around us is a public good, and one of the essential jobs of government is to provide public goods.
Yes, private actors can fund some of this stuff, and will continue to do so. But a reliance only on the private sector will mean short-sighted decisions about what is relevant and profitable today. One of America's greatest assets has been its university system, where ideas are fostered, where individuals can rise above their beginnings, and where I can paid to tweet and blog. Oh, wait, I don't. Never mind.