Texas voters will consider 11 amendments to the state constitution on Nov. 3. The Texas Freedom Network has taken no official position on any of the measures. But we could have predicted what far-right groups, such as David Barton’s WallBuilders, would say about one: putting more resources into university research. They don’t like it.
Proposition 4 is an amendment that would establish a “national research university fund” that would help more Texas universities become national research centers. Supporters argue that such research is critical to the future of the Texas and national economies.
But in an e-mail to activists last week, Barton’s WallBuilders organization opposed the amendment, arguing that such spending is “non-essential” during bad economic times. Universities should focus on teaching, not research, the group says. And then:
[F]ree enterprise already provides extensive and productive private research whereas government funded research often results in questionable projects and endeavors that would never withstand free-market scrutiny or competition.
That statement goes well beyond whether voters should or shouldn’t approve this amendment. It attacks the very idea that public universities should be involved in research at all. This kind of ideological nonsense is precisely what we’ve come to expect from far-right pressure groups.
But here’s an important fact to keep in mind:
“At present, only 20 percent of all basic research in the United States is performed by the private sector. Colleges and universities account for 60 percent of such research, with government accounting for the remaining amounts. Washington is the largest funder of basic research, paying for 57 percent of the total.”
Moreover, basic research is a critical first step in innovation and the commercialization of new products and technologies. In short, university research helps fuel economic growth. Yale University President Richard C. Levin made this point in a speech eight years ago at a Chinese university:
“As the nation’s principal locus of basic scientific research, our universities play a key role in this pattern of economic competitiveness and growth. Basic research, by definition, is motivated purely by curiosity and the quest for knowledge. It has no clear, practical, commercial objective. Yet basic research is the source from which all commercially oriented applied research and development ultimately flows. I say ultimately because it often takes decades before the commercial implications of an important scientific discovery are fully realized. The commercial potential of a particular discovery is often unanticipated, and often extends to many, economically unrelated industries and applications. In other words, the development of innovative, commercial products that occurs today depends on advances in basic research achieved ten, twenty, or fifty years ago — most often without any idea of the eventual consequences. . . .”
“The private sector has little incentive to invest in basic research because the returns from the creation of new generic knowledge are difficult to appropriate for private benefit. . . . Moreover, the time lags between the initiation of basic (or even long-term applied) research and commercial application are long, far longer than an impatient private sector could tolerate.”
Examples of university research that has been invaluable in later decades are numerous, Levin pointed out, including the “double helix” structure of DNA (Cambridge) and lasers (Yale). His Chinese audience was listening intently, and their country is a growing competitor in science and research.
But far-right groups like WallBuilders oppose publicly funded research, and that opposition stretches beyond the usual knee-jerk anti-government lunacy. They also oppose the substance of that work in areas such as embryonic stem cells research, climate change and evolution. In reality, those are the kinds of “questionable projects and endeavors” WallBuilders is talking about. In short, they put ideology ahead of education and progress.
And that’s something else to keep in mind as David Barton helps the Texas State Board of Education revise curriculum standards. Barton and others on the far right aren’t just undermining the ability of Texas students to succeed in college and compete for the jobs of the future. They’re working to undermine the ability of our economy even to create those very jobs.