Monday, April 17, 2006

Government Subsidies, Public Ownership? Thank you, Scientific Activist

The always-interesting Nick Anthis writes about biologists who receive government grants afterwards creating biotech companies with the research they do under the contracts. He does not necessarily condemn this, but does some very interesting thinking about the relationships created when government subsidizes knowledge creation and then it goes private. Nick notes that economists view this as a very positive development -- the pump that powers the economy. There is definitely something to this. But he also raises alarms over the excessive capitalistic view of research -- you only research topics where you can make some money off it afterwards. That leads to third world diseases and important issues that never get funded because there just isn't any big money in them. Read Nick's blog here:

The Scientific Activist: Reporting from the Crossroads of Science and Politics: Praise for Selling Out

This piece leads me on as a librarian to think about the privatization some years back of the NTIS series. See the very rich site here. This is created with federal funds, you and I pay for it as tax payers. But as librarians or individuals, since the 1980's we have to pay again to get the excellent technical reports that used to be free; the agency privatized the publishing of the reports. These used to be published free for use by any citizen by the Government Printing Office. Since that time, the Government Printing Office (GPO) has seen more and more agencies pull potentially profitable publications out of the GPO lists. Now, Congress pushes them to publish more and more electronically on the Web.

This web publication is in many ways a very convenient thing, and cuts costs a great deal. There is no paper or ink cost and no mailing to deal with. The thing that librarians worry about is this: what happens when you want to see a report from ten years ago? Will it still be on the Web? People who surf the Internet much know how fast websites change.

Ten years is a very long time to contemplate in terms of Web time. And yet, people often want government documents from twenty, thirty, and more years ago. How will the government (or librarians) maintain documents in electronic format over hundreds of years? Just in the thirty or so years computers have been in Scommon use for word processing purposes, the formats for storing data and the various software for reading it have changed so dramatically that I cannot read articles that I wrote and saved from the start of my career in the 1980's unless I translated them and moved them to newer storage media.

So, between the issues of privatization, the pressures of capital, the needs of funding and government subsidies, there are many types of knowledge created and managed by the governments of the world. The taxpayers do underwrite the creation of these knowledge bases. In an ideal world, that would give us all some rights to the data or at least to say how it would be managed. So far, the best we manage is near democracies with lots of squawking.

I am decorating this essay with an image by Phillip Agee, artist at of an eagle and a chicken, since it seems to capture both the American democratic ideal and the squawking I feel is necessary to move us closer to the ideals.

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