Sir Paul Nurse Seems Ignorant Of Basic Science

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Sure, fighting words aimed at a Nobel Laureate from someone who’s not going to get close to finishing the first chapter of a chemistry book. But then that’s rather the point here, Feynman’s one. That outside their own area of expertise even the finest scientists are just as dumb as the rest of us. So it is with Sir Paul Nurse and his whining about EU science funds. This is economics, a subject Sir Paul is clearly clueless about.

Brexit ‘may bar UK scientists from €100bn EU research fund’
Nobel prize winner warns UK science will suffer unless it can gain access to Horizon Europe

There is the obvious point. The British government isn’t going to be paying into the EU. We’ve long been a net contributor, meaning that what we get back – including in these science funds – is less than what we send. Thus we’ll have more, outside, to spend on such science if we wish to. But that’s just addition, something far too minor an issue to trouble a mind as advanced as Sir Paul’s.

One of Britain’s leading researchers has warned of a “major blow” to national science if ministers cannot secure access to a massive research programme that is being drawn up by the EU. The Horizon Europe programme will fund €100bn in research projects, making it one of the largest science funds in the world. British researchers will be locked out unless the government negotiates an access deal in the coming months. Sir Paul Nurse, the Nobel prize-winning director of the Francis Crick Institute, in London, said the seven-year programme was so important that exclusion would see the UK drop out of the top tier of research nations.

But to economics. What actually is the argument in favour of government subsidy to science? It’s a public good. It’s very difficult indeed to make money out of basic science, therefore too little basic science will be done. Channeling a modest amount of our money to those scientists leads to more science and we’re better off. This really is what the argument is. We should have public subsidy of public goods because that’s what a public good is, something made better – or we get more of it than the market incentives alone would provide – through public subsidy.

OK. But why is it that public goods are so hard to make money from? Because once they exist they’re non-rivalrous and non-excludable. We can’t stop someone using or enjoying them, their use of them doesn’t change the amount available to us to use.

OK. And what happens if the European spend their tax money on science and we don’t? Then we get to use all that science they’ve paid for without having to pay for it. That’s the whole nature of public goods. That’s the thing built into the very definition of public goods. The very argument that leads to public subsidy is the same one that insists it doesn’t matter who pays that subsidy nor where they spend it. That we’re talking about government spending upon science means, by definition, that we don’t care if it’s the Europeans doing the spending on science being done by only Europeans.

But then you know, Sir Paul Nurse doesn’t know anything about science, does he?