Reflection on running science as a business

Would it be proper to run a scientific institute as a business, or would it be a category mistake?

Category mistake

A category mistake is a rather fundamental mistake concerning the true nature of a concept. An example would be to say that the color of bread is 100€. This is a category mistake, not because 100€ is too expensive, but because the color of an object cannot be expressed using a monetary value. Could it similarly be a category mistake to view science as a business?

Science expensive

Like the exceptionally expensive loaf of bread in the example above, science is generally exceptionally costly. This has everything to do with the nature of science for it generally requires highly specialized personnel applying rigorous methods in unique (non-routine) ways in order to generate/accumulate highly reliable and verifiable knowledge. However, science may also be perceived as inefficient.

Science as business

Thus, science has been exposed to increasing pressure to enhance its own ‘production efficiency’. To meet this objective science is increasingly viewed as if it were a ‘normal’ business. This means that a scientific institute may, for example, have front-office managers who have been trained to persuade ‘customers’ in the ‘market’ to commission research. However, it may be questioned whether it is proper to view the production of a scientific report as if it were a commercial product.

The nature of business

Efficient production is a hallmark of commercial business. Competition between businesses in a largely free market tends to stimulate efficiency in meeting market demands. In a free market cost is determined by the The true nature of business is nature, i.e. its adherence to the laws of nature, in particular the law of survival of the fittest. Thus, the business model may help reduce the cost of science by enhancing its efficiency.

A business opportunity in science

Here I want to zoom in on a rather hypothetical business case in science. Suppose a scientist is in the unique position to require an exceptionally small effort, e.g. the equivalent to 100€ of research time, to enable a ‘business-customer’ to save a lot of money. Say the return on investment for the customer could be 100.000. However, if our scientist would be an entrepreneur he should see this as a business opportunity and he may then be tempted to charge perhaps 1000 or even 10.000 times the required amount. This would enhance the profitability of science while still leaving a respectable profit of 9.9 or 9.0M € for the customer.


Several concerns arise from adopting such a frame of mind in science. Firstly, this hypothetical example is counterfactual in at least two respects.

I would personally be tempted to regard it as immoral to charge substantially more, even if it would only be 100 times the required amount. This is because science is mostly very costly, and science often has difficulty meeting the true needs of  society, e.g. in terms of helping society solve urgent disputes, like those concerning animal welfare and sustainability. I’m most reluctant to accept that generally most expensive scientist would also be greedy when the occasional opportunity arises, rather than regarding it as returning an occasional favor to society, e.g. by helping a customer make a profit based on scientific innovation.

Improper business

However, there is another, more fundamental concern in perceiving science as a business. In many ‘normal’ businesses it would be no problem whatsoever to charge a much higher rate. Normal business generally even commands doing so. It would just be a matter of taking advantage of a business opportunity. However, it wouldn’t be proper for all businesses to behave this way. Perhaps it cannot be seen as an acceptable practice in any kind of business, because it appears to violate a moral sense of justice and honesty.


Suppose a hungry customer enters a bakery shop just before closing time. The last loaf of bread may be worth perhaps as much as 100€. Yet it wouldn’t be a good idea to charge that much to a hungry or wealthy customer. He would probably be getting very angry, and rightly so. For this is not the kind of business morals we would accept as consumer-customers. It just wouldn’t be fair.


An important difference between science and a bakery is that the effort it takes to do science is often not as transparent. In this respect, a scientist is more like a dentist. For a dentist it is generally fairly easy to drill some holes in healthy teeth, just to make some extra money. But that wouldn’t be an acceptable ‘business’ either.


A scientist, like a medical professional, is supposed to be thoroughly reliable. Honesty and transparency are key values of science. Without these values science may make itself impossible. If a scientist is charging excessive amount of money, just because it is possible, he may get away with this if he has no problem in pretending it took a lot of work. But it would compromise the scientist’s honesty towards the paying ‘client’. And this is bound to generate a personal dilemma regarding (scientific) integrity, if science were run as a ‘regular’ business.

Natural selection

Now, of course, it is possible to solve this problem by natural selection, as is generally the case in business. If you want to be honest, just don’t aspire becoming a regular salesperson. But I am not so sure if the same should apply to a scientist.

No true category mistake?

In other words, seeing science as a bussiness may compromise (scientific) integrity. In the ideal world business should be honest and reliable too.  If so, running science as a business would not be a true category mistake. However,  in as far deception and ‘alternative facts’ can accepted as part and parcel of ‘normal’ business, to that extent perceiving science as a’normal’ business would be a rather serious category mistake.


Other professions generate similar concerns. Here is a link to a video clip (in Dutch) where a journalist uses children to generate an ‘alternative fact’ about the taste of vegan meat (original clip here). Such a deliberate construction of alternative facts may well be regarded as a punishable crime. In any case scientists and jounalists should be most reluctant to become engaged in the generation of such fake realities for the sake of doing more ‘profitable business’.

This entry was posted in Ethics, Justice, Money, Politics, Science, Semantics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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