THE BROKEN PIPELINE….Back in the late 90s Bill Clinton spearheaded an effort to double NIH spending on healthcare research. After his first year in office, George Bush put a stop to this, first flattening the NIH budget and then decreasing it. The problem? All that extra Clinton-era funding was in the form of multi-year grants, and when the budget flatlined those grants still had to be funded. That meant no money for anything new. Megan McArdle, channeling medblogger Orac, argues that this demonstrates a problem with the way government works:

There are many reasons to avoid taking the King’s shilling if you can. Chief among them is that politicians are extremely fickle taskmasters….This has recently become a problem for healthcare research, thanks to a funding boom and bust, and the government’s poor system for fund allocation.

….A steady, slow increase, [Orac] says, would have been better than a doubling followed by a flatline; now the old grants are crowding out new research, and possibly crippling the careers of young researchers who can’t get onto a project. This suggests that the public should have a preference for politicians with modest promises, rather than radical new plans. But in the case of things like scientific research, this is emphatically not the case.

Well, sure. Politicians are fickle. But are we under the impression here that if Clinton & Co. had funded only a modest rise in NIH funding that Bush & Co. would have kept it in place? That seems….unlikely. So sure, the problem here may be partly “government,” but let’s face it: it’s much more a problem of “the Bush administration.” They’ve got other priorities, like wars in Iraq and missile defense systems, and medical research that benefits elite universities who don’t contribute much money to Republican causes just isn’t high on their list. So despite the problems it’s created, we’re lucky Clinton did as much as he did. If he hadn’t, we never would have gotten anything.

Libertarians and conservatives have a well-known critique of government that deserves to be taken seriously. But too often libertarians and conservatives watch one of their own deliberately trash a government program and then use that as a case study of why “government” doesn’t work. That, needless to say, deserves to be taken a lot less seriously.