Research, in any field of science, is not the risk-free business that might easily be supposed from the confident promises of scientific spokesmen or the daily reports of new advances.
Nature yields her secrets with the greatest unwillingness, and in basic research most experiments contribute little to further progress, as judged by the rarity with which most scientific reports are cited by others.
Basic research, the attempt to understand the fundamental principles of science, is so risky, in fact, that only the federal government is willing to keep pouring money into it. It is a venture that produces far fewer hits than misses.
Even the pharmaceutical industry, a major beneficiary of biomedical research, does not like to invest too heavily in basic science. Rather, it lets private venture capital support the small biotechnology companies that first try to bring new findings to market, and then buys up the few winners of this harsh winnowing process.
If basic research is fraught with such a high failure rate, why then does it yield such rich economic returns? The answer is that such government financing agencies as theNational Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation are like the managers of a stock index fund: they buy everything in the market, and the few spectacular winners make up for all the disasters.
But just as index fund managers often go astray when they try to improve on the index’s performance by overweighting the stocks they favor, the government can go wrong when it tries to pick winners.
This is why it was such a risk for California to earmark $3 billion specifically for stem cellresearch over the next 10 years. Stem cells are just one of many promising fields of biomedical research. They could yield great advances, or become an exercise in sustained failure, as gene therapy has so far been. By allocating so much money to a single field, California is placing an enormous bet on a single horse, and the chances are substantial that its taxpayers will lose their collective shirt.