The Government Funding Lie

The lie at the heart of the OA movement remains a lie — but it has been so oft-repeated, some think it's true

Does the government fund things to buy them?

This is a key assumption of the OA movement — that government funding of research projects buys what is produced, including papers, patents, and trade secrets. It’s as if subsidizing a crop would give the federal government property rights — owning those crops, those farms, and thereby preventing any farmer, restaurant, or supermarket from selling the crops in various ways for money. After all, they were “government-funded.”

Imagine how much the government would have purchased with the PPP loans of the pandemic if this logic held any water? Many organizations would have government-employed board members today . . .

Clearly, this idea that the government buys things with its funding decisions is a fiction. Nobody assumes this, and the Constitution and various laws emanating from it prohibit such “takings.”

The government funds things to advance various social, political, or economic interests broadly. It funds scientific research to solve problems and expand the economic power of society. As Yuval Noah Harari put it in his book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

During the last five centuries, humans increasingly came to believe that they could increase their capabilities by investing in scientific research. This wasn’t just blind faith – it was repeatedly proven empirically. The more proofs there were, the more resources wealthy people and governments were willing to put into science.

For governments, the economic incentive is clear — more science means more economic benefit, which also increases tax revenues and social well-being. As Harari puts it:

The last 500 years have witnessed a phenomenal and unprecedented growth in human power. . . . The total value of goods and services provided by humankind in the year 1500 is estimated at $250 billion, in today’s dollars. Nowadays the value of a year of human production is close to $60 trillion.

I only bring this up because I see this lie repeated still. In fact, it seems to go unquestioned more than ever. But it is a lie. The government doesn’t purchase things with its funding. It funds things as part of a political, social, and economic agenda that exists to give private parties various benefits and opportunities. There are laws to prevent the government from “taking” things via its funding (without just compensation), and the philosophy of government runs against it, at least in something beyond a feudal state.

Let’s stop lying about this.

(If you’ve ever had a student loan, be glad this isn’t how the world works . . .)