Private Science vs. Government Science

October 28, 2015

In researching an upcoming study on privatization, I came across an interesting illustration of the advantages of private science over government science. Private science focuses on efficiency and results, but government science maybe not so much.

The study by Jonathan Karpoff in the Journal of Political Economy found:

From 1818 to 1909, 35 government and 57 privately-funded expeditions sought to locate and navigate a Northwest Passage, discover the North Pole, and make other significant discoveries in arctic regions. Most major arctic discoveries were made by private expeditions. Most tragedies were publicly funded. By other measures as well, publicly-funded expeditions performed poorly. … Although public expeditions made some significant discoveries, they did so at substantially higher cost (as measured by crew size or vessel tonnage) than private discoveries.

Historical accounts indicate that, compared to private expeditions, public expeditions: (1) employed leaders that were relatively unmotivated and unprepared for arctic exploration; (2) separated the initiation and implementation functions of executive leadership; and (3) adapted slowly to new information about clothing, diet, shelter, modes of arctic travel, organizational structure, and optimal party size. These shortcomings resulted from, and contributed to, poorly aligned incentives among key contributors.

My upcoming study will look at the advantages of privatizing federal activities such postal services, air traffic control, and passenger rail. But policymakers should also explore the advantages of privatizing federal science activities.

Cato adjunct Terence Kealey has written about the advantages of private over government science, and he will discuss that topic at an upcoming Chicago seminar.

Meanwhile, if you plan to explore the Arctic, it would be best to go on a private rather than government ship. There would be less chance of getting scurvy–at least that’s the way it used to be, according to Karpoff.



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