Atlas Shrugged: Government Science

Atlas Shrugged, part I, chapter VII

In our last installment, Rearden Steel and Taggart Transcontinental were reeling after the State Science Institute put out a press release condemning Dagny and Hank’s use of Rearden Metal to build the Rio Norte Line. In desperation, Dagny has traveled to New Hampshire to visit the State Science Institute and the man in charge of it, Dr. Robert Stadler:

At the age of twenty-seven, Dr. Robert Stadler had written a treatise on cosmic rays, which demolished most of the theories held by the scientists who preceded him. Those who followed, found his achievement somewhere at the base of any line of inquiry they undertook. At the age of thirty, he was recognized as the greatest physicist of his time. At the age of thirty-two, he became head of the Department of Physics at the Patrick Henry University, in the days when the great University still deserved its glory…

At the age of forty, Dr. Robert Stadler addressed the nation, endorsing the establishment of a State Science Institute. “Set science free of the rule of the dollar,” he pleaded… The nation built the white marble edifice as a personal present to one of its greatest men. [p.176]

Stadler’s introduction is noteworthy, if only because he’s the first character – in fact, the only character – who has some degree of moral complexity. We’re meant to conclude that he had the potential to be a great capitalist (because he’s smart and can figure stuff out), but he’s fallen from grace and joined the looters (because he thinks scientific research should be funded by the state). According to Jennifer Burns’ biography Goddess of the Market, Rand modeled Stadler on J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Dagny and Dr. Stadler are old friends, and she presses him on why he put out a statement condemning Rearden Metal, since she says that she knows he values truth above all else. He dissembles and evades the question until she finally gets him to admit that the statement was put out by Dr. Floyd Ferris, the institute’s political coordinator, and not by him:

“I was not consulted about that statement!” The cry broke out involuntarily. “I wouldn’t have allowed it! I don’t like it any better than you do! But I can’t issue a public denial!” [p.179]

Dr. Stadler reluctantly explains that the State Science Institute is in danger of losing its funding, because they’ve got nothing to show for all the money given to them so far, and it would make them look even worse if an entrepreneur like Hank Rearden invented something that was better than anything they’ve done:

“I’ll tell you, if you wish. It’s the truth that you want, isn’t it? Dr. Ferris cannot help it, if the morons who vote the funds for this Institute insist on what they call results. They are incapable of conceiving of such a thing as abstract science. They can judge it only in terms of the latest gadget it has produced for them….

If you consider that for thirteen years this Institute has had a department of metallurgical research, which has cost over twenty million dollars and has produced nothing but a new silver polish and a new anti-corrosive preparation which, I believe, is not so good as the old ones – you can imagine what the public reaction will be if some private individual comes out with a product that revolutionizes the entire science of metallurgy and proves to be sensationally successful!” [p.180]

In Rand’s world, everyone who works for the government is a stooge or a bumbling incompetent, capable only of what she derisively calls “abstract science”. But again, Rand’s plot points are never just fiction; they always come with a message attached. She wants us to conclude that this is the way the real world works too, that the government can never produce anything and that all scientific and technological advances come from heroic individual capitalists, like Thomas Edison or the Wright brothers toiling away in their labs.

This belief requires erasing large swaths of history. The private sector usually only funds research that has an immediate, or at least an obvious, commercial application. No private company would have paid to build the Large Hadron Collider, for example. And why would they? The potential return on investment is too low. If your goal is making money, you’re naturally going to focus on those ideas that you’re pretty sure will work – refining them, improving them, making them useful. And that’s fine, someone has to do that.

But we still need the blue-sky work, the fundamental scientific research into completely unexplored avenues. It won’t always pan out, but when it does, it can open new horizons and create brand-new commercial applications, even whole industries, that were never imagined before. Through the collective power of society, we can support research projects that would be impossible for private parties to embark on alone. Will anything useful emerge from the LHC? Will it show us how to build an anti-gravity generator or a functioning warp drive? I have no idea, and neither does anyone. That’s the point.

However, there’s no shortage of groundbreaking advances that did originate from government-funded research. Rand herself was perfectly well aware of some of them: nuclear energy, for example, which emerged from the government-run Manhattan Project. There’s also the space program, which Rand found hugely inspirational, despite the obvious hypocrisy of her cheering for something that was a government initiative from start to finish. Here’s what she said about the Apollo 11 launch:

I found myself waving to the rocket involuntarily, I heard people applauding and joined them, grasping our common motive; it was impossible to watch passively, one had to express, by some physical action, a feeling that was not triumph, but more: the feeling that that white object’s unobstructed streak of motion was the only thing that mattered in the universe.

What we had seen, in naked essentials – but in reality, not in a work of art – was the concretized abstraction of man’s greatness…

That we had seen a demonstration of man at his best, no one could doubt — this was the cause of the event’s attraction and of the stunned numbed state in which it left us. (source)

And here’s one Ayn Rand didn’t foresee: the Internet. Originally funded by Defense Department bureaucrats, it now supports worldwide commercial activity on a colossal scale. It’s created entire new industries, both wealthy corporate giants like Google as well as businesses serving the needs of the poor, like Kenya’s highly successful M-PESA mobile payment network. The same is true of the GPS satellite network, which was originally a government project. Are any of these world-transforming inventions comparable to “a new silver polish”?

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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  • GubbaBumpkin

    Xerox PARC.
    Bell Labs.

  • David Simon

    GPS is especially remarkable as it is a technology that could not have existed without a sound understanding of relativistic physics, which by itself is very nearly as abstract a science as you can get, perhaps only one step below pure math.

  • JohnH2

    Bell Labs is actually not that great of an example due to AT&T being a government supported monopoly. Both actually show some of the problems with private labs as well, they both developed groundbreaking products which were squashed by the larger company and sat on for literally decades.

  • JedRothwell

    Here is a partial list of technology with government contributions.

    A. Developed exclusively by government.

    Canals, modern highways, automobile traffic signals and controls, air traffic control, radar, computers, most early software, nuclear power, the Internet, space exploration, the GPS, the human genome project.

    B. Research paid for the government, or almost entirely by the government

    The telegraph, railroad construction, especially the Transcontinental Railroad, the laser, antibiotics, most medical technology.

    Primary education, land grant colleges.

    C. Improved a great deal with government funding in the early stages

    Steamships, railroad technology, coal mining, electric power generation, steam turbines (used in warships), ship subdivided hulls and other safety features (also in warships), aviation (also in weapons), semiconductors from 1948 until around 1965, most robotics, modern RAM and disk storage (developed by MIT and IBM with Uncle Sam’s money).

    Actually, you can put just about every major technology in that last category. Wind turbines have given tax breaks, without which they could not have been developed. Steamship in the early 19th century were awarded mail-carrying contracts without with they would have been uneconomical.

    Finally, we have cold fusion, which has been almost exclusively developed so far with money from the government of Italy and the U.S. DARPA. That’s what I do. See:

    That is the closest thing to the mystery energy generator described in Rand’s book, except that it is real. Not useful yet, but was replicated in hundreds of labs, mainly government labs such as Los Alamos and the China Lake weapons development lab. If it comes to pass it will owe nothing to private industry. It was discovered, replicated, and brought to fruition almost entirely by a group of several hundred researchers at public universities and national laboratories.

  • L.Long

    Robert Heinlein who had been in a coma for almost a year wrote an article for playboy about how the government sponsored space program technologies saved his life.
    There are many many examples as some here have pointed out that show socialized science has led to many of today’s everyday items.
    I for one would rather see science sponsored by the government and the defense budget slashed to pay for it.

  • Jeff

    My favorite examples:

    Oregon Trail
    Number Munchers
    Odell Lake

  • smrnda

    Governments also funded a great deal of research into computer technologies, and a major impetus for developing them was breaking the enigma cipher in WWII. A great deal of highly relevant research has been and still is conducted at public research universities, and Edsger Dijkstra came up with the THE multiprogramming system (an early OS) while at a public university in the Netherlands.

  • Loren Petrich

    All sponsored by big businesses, a form of collectivism that pro-capitalist ideologues seem to love.

  • Loren Petrich

    Back in the 1980′s, Senator William Proxmire would give his “Golden Fleece” awards to what he considered wastes of government money, like absurd research projects. He once ridiculed a walking-robot project with what it would do for the university’s football team. About space colonies, “Not a penny for that nutty fantasy”.

    But lots of research in the past could easily have gotten Proxmire-style ridicule. Making balls roll down boards? Trying to find out how the planets travel? Finding out how much air makes iron rust? Trying to find out what different kinds of air there are? Futzing with vacuum tubes? Comparing rocks from different places? Crossbreeding pea plants?

  • Donalbain

    I don’t understand the point you are trying to make here. Nobody has suggested that there is no place for private funding of research, just that there IS a place for government funding of research.

  • David Andrew Kearney

    I think this is an area where Rand’s philosophy and reality collide.

    Rand’s ideal scientist is the rarified genius working alone — Reardon and his metal, Galt and his motor, etc. When Dagney wants to try to reverse engeneer Galt’s engine, instead of getting as many people as possible working on it, she chooses just one promising student.

    Most actual science is collaboritive in nature with teams of researchers and lots of information sharing (I’m not a scientist, so correct me if I’m wrong about that).

  • Loren Petrich

    That is correct about how science works. Sure, the field has what one scientist called “celebrities”, but even they had worked with others.

  • Spectrall

    One thing interesting is that government funded research has also given minor baubles akin to silver polish. Or, at least, information gleaned from government research projects has been turned into such baubles by commercial entities.

    Another example of a great public good, on par for me with any of the more techie-type hardware, are the public health developments that have come from the NIH and NIH-funded research.

  • Spectrall

    I’m reminded of the (possibly apocryphal?) Napoleon quote –

    You would make a ship sail against the winds and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck…I have no time for such nonsense.

  • J_Enigma32

    You don’t even have to look back that far. I want to say it was in 2008 that Sarah Palin criticized fruit fly research, wondering aloud why it was necessary:

    “You guys have heard some of the examples of where those dollars go,” the fun Alaska governor said to the guys in the audience, acknowledging their media savvy about Congress members, who sometimes acquire public money for frivolous projects. “You’ve heard about the bridges. And some of these pet projects. They really don’t make a whole lot of sense.”

    A troubled look crossed her face. “And sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good, things like …” she grinned, shaking her head side to side, her voice rising to a facetious pitch “… fruit fly research in Paris, France.” Feeling in tune with the guys in her audience, she added, “I kid you not.”


  • Nancy McClernan

    The issue of the SSI not wanting to be outshone by Rearden points to another contradiction – if the SSI is full of incompetent losers who can’t do science right, why wouldn’t they use their political power to prevent Rearden from making them look bad? Isn’t it in their own self-interest to do so? Does Rand figure they should just step aside and allow Rearden to threaten their job security for the greater good of society? Or for the benefit of Hank Rearden?

    We know that Rand has contempt for the Stadler character because he believes in promoting the cause of science outside of market considerations. Why shouldn’t the SSI personnel consider their own self-marketing considerations first? Anything less would be altruism.

    And of course Rand does believe the SSI should accept that the cause of Rearden metal “objectively” trumps their own selfish desires. Just as both d’Anconia and Rearden step aside without a single self-centered peep when John Galt swoops in and takes Dagny away from both of them – because the Ubermensch all agree that “objectively” Galt is the better man.

    If we would all just agree “objectively” with Rand as to what the highest values are, everything would be rational and good.

    As always, Rand’s philosophy boils down to is the world according to Ayn Rand’s personal preferences.

  • smrnda

    This is why it’s a bad idea to put scientifically illiterate people in positions of leadership. I’m willing to let people out of STEM in government, but only provided they don’t pretend to be able to evaluate the value of research they can’t understand.

  • smrnda

    I design software, and you don’t get much more collectivist than that. It is impossible for one person to do much alone, and if everybody wanted to rebuild the wheel each time, we’d get nowhere.

    To do what I do, I’m using an OS developed by others, numerous programming languages developed by others, hundreds if not thousands of libraries designed by others. It’s a waste of time to replicate what’s already been done. It’s also worth using a tool that has stood the test of time.

    From my experience with actual science, it’s definitely collaborative. When I assisted with psychology research, it takes maybe 1 person to come up with a hypothesis to test, and then maybe 10 – 20 to actually do it, and there’s things you can’t do alone. You often need experimenters who do not know the hypothesis in order to avoid experimenter bias, so *one lone researcher* cannot actually do a study properly much of the time. You don’t ignore existing research, and an undervalued area is replicating other people’s experiments since a finding needs to be able to be replicated.

  • Adam Lee

    I remember in one of Carl Sagan’s books he imagined how silly it would have sounded if famous scientists had had to explain their work to grant agencies: “A Mr. Fleming wishes to study mold in smelly cheese; a Mrs. Curie wishes to study rocks that glow in the dark.”

  • scroogleu

    I can’t thank you enough for addressing these Objectivist bibles – probably the worst thing ever to happen to atheism was Ayn Rand and her disciples for anarchy and greed, who maligned society against us by climbing under our tent and soiling it with their stench. The damage they have caused is a legacy of misconceptions which we still have to struggle with, although these people have been every bit as religious aa any cult for following Rand so unquestioningly. Had it not been for some of those who I encountered in high school, I may have been able to lose my religious fears and embrace my own atheism decades earlier!

  • Nobeliefs Nonewhatsoever

    I cannot thank you enough for addressing these Objectivist bibles – I only wish that this could have been done much earlier! The worst thing ever to happen to atheism has been Ayn Rand, whose disciples became missionaries for anarchy and greed, and they have maligned society against atheism more than any televangelist could by crawling under our tent and soiling it with their stink. Despite the fact that they are every bit as religious as any religious fundamentalist for following Rand’s irrational nonsense so unquestioningly, we are only just beginning to clear the air with the greater population on where most of us stand morally on account of these people. If it wasn’t for some of them who I encountered while in high school, it may have been possible for me to have lost my religious fears and embraced my own atheism decades earlier!

  • Loren Petrich

    Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World, p. 374: “a Mr Fleming wishes to study bugs in smelly cheese; a Polish woman wishes to sift through tons of Central African ore to find minute quantities of a substance she says will glow in the dark; a Mr Kepler wants to hear the songs the planets sing.”

    Scorecard – 04.17.78 – SI Vault


    Senator William Proxmire (D., Wis.), the self-appointed watchdog of wasteful federal spending, took a blast the other day at Ohio State. It seems that OSU has developed a two-foot-tall, 200-pound, six-legged robot known as “The Bionic Bug” at a cost of $405,000 to the nation’s taxpayers. Though the Bug is being used for various kinds of research, in Proxmire’s view it is worthless, and he suggests it be put to work in Woody Hayes’ backfield.

    “Wouldn’t Coach Hayes love to get this solidly built 200-pounder with six legs out of the laboratory and onto the gridiron,” said Proxmire. “This new Buckeye would fit perfectly into Ohio State’s supremely boring style of play. It walks at a rate of five inches per second, which translates into a 12-minute 100-yard dash. And since the Bug travels 10 yards at a time [it is limited to that distance by its electrical umbilical cord], it would be assured of a first down every time its signal was called. It could convert Ohio State’s great tradition of ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ into ’10 yards and a cloud of rust.’ “

  • J-D

    The text implicitly criticises the people of the State Science Institute for inability to conceive ‘of such a thing as abstract science’ and having no standard of judgement except ‘the latest gadget … produced’. And yet, when the text implicitly values Rearden’s work over the Institute’s because he’s produced a new wonder alloy and the Institute only a new silver polish, that’s _exactly_ the standard being applied by the author. Is there any sign of her conceiving of an abstract science that can be evaluated by a standard independent of its production of gadgets?

  • UWIR

    Every science by itself is abstract. Relativity deals with concrete objects, which is demonstrated by the very fact that it’s needed for GPS.

  • Science Avenger

    Does Rand figure they should just step aside and allow Rearden to threaten their job security for the greater good of society?

    Actually yes, not for the greater good of society, but because allowing others to pursue productive activity is what it means to live as rational beings. You are still looking at everything from the perspective of the unenlightened egoist, rather than the one who can see past the moment.

  • Nancy McClernan

    LOL – “rational being” – there’s nothing unrational about the bad scientists at the SSI deciding to put their livelihoods and their families before “productive activity.”

    Do you “enlightened egoists” worship Ayn Rand the way Objectivists do?

  • Alex Harman

    Funny you should mention them. As Matt Yglesias points out, “we ought to understand both PARC and its East Coast friend Bell Labs as in important respects outgrowth of the high marginal tax rates prevailing in postwar America. These were, lets recall, very high rates. If you look on the corporate income tax side you’ll see that during the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson years the top rate hovered around 50 percent. Dividends were taxes at a rate that maxed out at 91 percent before declining to “only” 70 percent as a result of LBJ’s tax cutting.

    This created a dynamic where “earn a profit and pay the profits out as dividends to our richest and most influential shareholders” was not a very high priority for managers. And for executives to give themselves a raise was tantamount to handing money over to the government. There was nothing left to do but spend it on something, and various high-tech research labs and skunkworks’ fit the bill. After all, if something really awesome emerged you’d get glory—and the government can’t tax glory.”

    Go read the rest, it’s an interesting article.

  • Alex Harman

    Objectivists generally don’t care much for relativity. They don’t understand it even slighly, mind you, but they know that it’s wrong and they don’t like it.

  • Alex Harman

    Proxmire was an embarrassment to the Democratic Party. His particular style of arrogant ignorance is mostly found on the Right today, but populist liberal are not immune to it, either.

  • Alex Harman

    I wouldn’t go quite that far; the fact that communism is nominally “atheistic” (despite being as dogmatic and irrational as any religion, and despite the fact that its most infamous leaders, such as Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and the Kim dynasty — would better be described as autotheists than atheists) means we’re associated in a lot of ill-informed people’s minds with the stench of stench of those leaders’ atrocities, too.

  • Science Avenger

    There is according to Rand, which is what we (at least I) were discussing.

    I fail to understand why people like you insist on creating straw men versions of what Rand thought and engaging in this silly voluntary obtuseness in retgard to fairly simple concepts. Her writings and theories are target rich environments for valid criticisms, why gum up the works with nonsense? Can’t you see that plays right into the hands of the imagined intellectual persecution complex the Objectivists wallow in?

    Are you simply not at all interested in productively engaging these people, and simply want to skull fuck Rand’s corpse? If so, wake up, this shut-down shit we all just suffered through was pure Rand, and it’ll keep happening as long as their silly arguments remain unchallenged and prevalant as the moral underpinning of the foolishness of Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, and many many others. The book is fiction, its effect is most real.

  • Nancy McClernan


    - there’s nothing unrational about the bad scientists at the SSI deciding to put their livelihoods and their families before “productive activity.”


    There is according to Rand

    Yes, obviously, and I said as much when I stated:

    And of course Rand does believe the SSI should accept that the cause of Rearden metal “objectively” trumps their own selfish desires.

    Do I have to actually spell out for you that by “the cause of Rearden metal” I mean Rand’s values, which obviously means the superior “rationality” of productive activity.

    So there is no disagreement there. So where is the “straw man?”

    And yet you clearly are arguing with me about something when you say:

    You are still looking at everything from the perspective of the unenlightened egoist, rather than the one who can see past the moment

    So now the issue is what, exactly, you are talking about here.

  • scroogleu

    Stalin was an atheist, that’s true enough. He was also likely a sadistic psychopath, which most atheists have never been, as he never allowed normal human ethics nor empathy to get in the way of his narcissm-fueled ambitions. It’s certainly true that he led a party which followed him on religiously ideological grounds. But the issue in Cold War America, when few would dare describe themselves as atheists, and even fewer would speak in favor of communism, was hardly communism. It was unfortunate that Rand became the savior of adoring disciples who were very religious in their acceptance of her insane ideology, and it was they who became the loudest voice of atheism in this country. American atheists never should have made the mistake of answering the ideology of Christianity, and the ideology of communism with another ideology!

  • Azkyroth

    There is according to Rand, which is what we (at least I) were discussing.

    That depends on whether you look at her alleged global principles as stated or her special pleading in context.

    Which is the problem. And not rocket science.

  • Azkyroth

    Stalin was a Stalinist first and foremost.

  • Alex Harman

    Definitely; that’s why I refer to him and his ilk as “autotheists.” They don’t really think that there are no gods; they think that they are gods.

  • Alex Harman

    I don’t know if the Randroids were necessarily the loudest voices of atheism in the U.S. Madalyn Murray O’Hair was pretty loud, too (and obnoxious at times, including toward other atheists), and of course Carl Sagan, why he didn’t explicitly express atheism, clearly presented a naturalistic view of the universe, and sought to direct the sense of wonder that supports many people’s religious beliefs toward science and humanism in Cosmos and his other works. More recently, the so-called “new atheists” Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins have largely eclipsed Rand as representatives of atheism per se, and the atheist blogosphere makes atheist ideas and arguments instantly accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

    It is definitely unfortunate that so many people have uncritically embraced the rigid ideology of Objectivism; unfortunately, the tendency toward ideological thinking and all the biases that go with it seems to be inherent to human nature, and just getting away from religion does not necessarily free us from that tendency.

  • Gregory Marshall

    Irony: A Libertarian complaining on the internet how the government doesn’t create anything.

  • Don Sakers

    > This belief requires erasing large swaths of history.

    Perfectly valid point about Rand’s world not corresponding to our present-day world — but please remember that most of those “large swaths of history” happened AFTER Atlas Shrugged was published. 1957: before Apollo, before Mercury, even before Sputnik. About the only big government science project that existed as a referent at the time was the Manhattan Project, which is obviously the blueprint for Rand’s Project X.

    Rand’s statements about government science during the Apollo program are fair game, but I think one needs to give her a bit of a pass in the pages of Atlas Shrugged.

    (I hate seeming to defend Rand like this…but I’d rather not give her defenders cause to dismiss this excellent series by pointing to some of these examples of criticizing the book for things that didn’t exist when it was published.)