Latest posts by John Engle (see all)
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Universities are massive engines of research and development. The state, private charities and corporations all pour money into these institutions to develop and expand the bounds of human understanding. Billions of dollars are spent by taxpayers on useful researches and teaching for the benefit of all. The top 200 research universities in the US spent $51.7 billion on research in 2009.
Despite the wealth of American universities as institutions, they still get much of their funding from the government. In 2011 62.6% of the money spent by universities on research and development came from the U.S. Federal government, with more coming from local and state governments. And this is in the developed country where universities are most privatized.
The benefits of government-funded university research are not shared widely enough in society, with universities retaining full ownership, for the most part, of their academic work. This means they get to profit from the government-funded research, and rarely have to share it with the taxpayers. By mandating that the research it spends so much taxpayer money on enter the public sphere, the government can more effectively spread the benefits of its own largesse and do its duty to all its citizens to provide them with the full benefit of what it produces with their tax money.
Everyone benefits from the public spreading of knowledge and information. Universities are central loci of the pursuit of knowledge and exploration of science, technology, and all the many and varied forms of intellectual enquiry. When the state, as the agent of the public, opts to fund research and development in the university setting, it becomes a part-owner of the ideas and creation that springs forth from that funding, just as it belongs to the researchers who directly produce it.
State funding is given to universities not simply to further the bounds of human discovery for its own sake, but so that those boundaries can be pushed for the benefit of the citizens of the polity. This is because the state is and must be fundamentally a servant of the people, using the people’s money to further the society’s aims. Ideally, it should not spill public cash into the coffers of hungry institutions, but if it is going to do so, the public has a right to expect a return on the investment.
Ultimately the purpose of the state in all its functions is to provide safety and certain public services so that people can all avail of what they consider to be the good life. In order to serve this obligation to the people, the state should ensure that the research it funds is publicly available. By conditioning all of its research funding to universities on their agreeing to make all of their work publicly available, the state can effectively serve the people and guarantee that the citizenry gets the full benefit of their money spent on those researches.
This obligation of states has been echoed in recent laws passed in Australia, Canada, and elsewhere that now seek to expand public access to state funded research, particularly academic research produced in universities and other dedicated research organizations. The ultimate purpose of the state is to serve the public interest; it is remiss in that duty when it fails to make the products of its monetary investments serve the public.
Universities are the great repositories and breeding grounds of knowledge, and the state must ensure that that knowledge, when it is produced because of the state’s largesse, is available for all to enjoy and benefit from.