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Friday, June 28, 2019

Scientists, Beer, and the Incentives of Government-Funded Research

A major 2019 Canadian study found that alcohol was too cheap, its purchase was too convenient, and governments did not do enough to discourage its sale and consumption.

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

“If you want to help yourself to some of the national wealth,” author and professor David Berlinski once suggested, affirm to a government agency “that you’ve got a red-hot proof that global warming is increasing, and you can go to the very best Parisian restaurants the next day.”

The scientific community’s efforts to alarm the public about global warming, Berlinski contended, are motivated by their desire for government funds. This is a cynical explanation, to be sure, for why scientific research is often biased, but not an unreasonable one. People respond to incentives, after all.

Scientists are prone to déformation professionnelle—they have the tendency to examine an issue only through the point of view of their own profession.

Scientists are not very different from lawyers, accountants, car mechanics, school teachers, taxi drivers, and entrepreneurs. They may all be wonderful people who care about the public good, but their primary motivation for working is to make money.

There are other, less cynical (but not mutually exclusive) explanations as to why scientific research can be biased. One such explanation is that scientists, just like everybody else, are prone to déformation professionnelle—they have the tendency to examine an issue only through the point of view of their own profession.

The Case of Canadian Beer

Earlier this year, a major Canadian study on alcohol policy provided an excellent illustration of this. As news headlines across the country reported, 16 scientists and researchers at various universities and institutions had, through their Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation, shown that provincial governments are “failing to address alcohol problems.”

The scientists evaluated provincial government policies and assigned a grade in the “D” range to seven of Canada’s 13 provinces or territories, while five received an “F.” The policy evaluation, however, was a curious one. Strangely, the policy evaluation did not evaluate whether government policies were beneficial to those who want to buy or sell alcohol.

Instead, provincial governments were evaluated more favorably if they devoted greater efforts toward afflicting buyers and sellers of alcohol through punitive taxes, price controls, heavy restrictions on the sale and marketing of alcoholic beverages, higher minimum legal drinking ages, and so on.Anti-drinking scientists insisted in the name of public health and wellness upon income redistribution from taxpayers and consumers to their own industry.

Even in the most restrictive markets, the researchers found that alcohol was too cheap, or that its purchase was too convenient, or that governments did not do enough to discourage or restrict its sale and consumption.

Predictably, and perhaps exemplifying Berlinski’s point on scientists grasping for government funds, the report authored by 16 scientists whose livelihoods involve raising public alarm about alcohol consumption concluded that there ought to be more government funding for public education on the dangers of alcohol consumption.

The report also advocated more government funding for bureaucracies to discourage drinking, more government funding for a lead organization to implement restrictive alcohol policies, more government funding for independent monitoring of such implementation, and more government funding to track and report the harm caused by alcohol consumption.

Like the CEO of a domestic automobile company insisting that tariffs against car imports—which would cause a massive wealth redistribution from consumers’ wallets into his own and those of the company’s shareholders—are in the national interest, the anti-drinking scientists insisted in the name of public health and wellness upon income redistribution from taxpayers and consumers to their own industry.

Not Necessarily Wrong—but Certainly Biased

Importantly, the fact that the CEO of an automobile company would stand to profit from tariffs is not proof that his arguments are wrong. And his support for tariffs may indeed be based on what he believes to be in the national interest, not just in his personal financial interest.

Similarly, the scientists involved in the Canadian Alcohol Policy Evaluation may well be more motivated by the public good than public funding, and the conclusions they reach are not necessarily bad or wrong. However, neither should their report be accepted uncritically as objective science or disinterested research.

Higher alcohol taxes, more restrictions, and more government spending to discourage drinking may be good or bad. 

An objective evaluation of alcohol policy would consider not just the costs of alcohol consumption but also the benefits of alcohol consumption (such the enjoyment people get from drinking), as well as the costs of the alcohol taxes and restrictions proposed and the social consequences of increasing government control over private consumption decisions.

Such things as higher alcohol taxes, more restrictions on the sale of alcohol, higher minimum legal drinking ages, and more government spending to discourage drinking may be good or bad policies. But certainly looking at just one side of the equation won’t tell us which they are.