Federal Funding for Science: What Not to Do

By John Paul Spence ’16

Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution lays out the enumerated powers granted to the federal government by the American people. Among these are the power to fight piracy on the high seas, the power to raise and support an army and navy, and the power to impose and collect taxes. The power to filter public revenue to basic science and research is not mentioned, but has become a major source of spending for the federal government in the past half-century. This spending has resulted in some noteworthy successes, among them landing men on the moon, turning the tide against polio, fighting heart disease, cancer, and other maladies, and creating the internet.  It has also resulted in some highly dubious dispensations for public funds on projects that studied, for example, whether sunfish are more aggressive under the influence of tequila or gin, or the optimal duration of massage therapy for rabbits.  But however you feel about government spending on science and technology, it is here to stay. Federal spending on domestic research and development amounts to about $130 billion each year, close to three percent of the national GDP, and that number will most likely rise for the foreseeable future. Because the government supports certain types of research that the private sector has no interest in carrying out, this spending is, in an important sense, beneficial. However, the government must focus on ways to maximize the results of this spending by investing in projects that will uncover useful new technologies or open the door for future applied research – and by keeping illegitimate spending to a minimum.

In order to maximize the results of current spending, we need, first of all, a basic understanding of how the government views its role in spending on research and development. Prior to World War II, federal spending on scientific research and development was practically non-existent, the most notable example of such an expenditure being the $43,000 the government shelled out for the Lewis and Clark expedition, or the limited funds it allocated to the Marine Hospital (which has developed rather circuitously into today’s National Institutes for Health) for the study of epidemics brought into the Unites States by sailors. Since World War II, however, federal spending on R&D has changed drastically, thanks in large part to the work of such policymakers as Vannevar Bush. In his famous report Science, the Endless Frontier (1945), Bush laid out his theory that the federal government should bear the load in funding basic research – the study of the fundamental principles of the natural and social sciences without a specific end in sight. Industries, generally speaking, do not conduct basic research because it does not yield direct profit. However, Bush argued, basic research is the foundation for all future discovery, the basic capital of the R&D world. Thus, the federal government should fund this form of research in the greater interest of science and of the American people.

Policymakers today stand behind the importance of spending on basic research, although federal spending has grown to encompass other areas of research as well in the days since Bush first presented his report. Spending grew to about $18 billion in the 1960’s and rested there for several years before taking off again in the mid-to-late-1970’s. Today, federal spending has reached about $130 billion, although, when put in terms of percentage of GDP, this number has fluctuated but not actually grown substantially since the early 1960’s. Total spending on R&D in the United States is about $400 billion, of which private industry performs about $250 billion. Of the $130 billion spent by the federal government, $83 billion is spent annually on defense and $57 is spent on non-defense, in all areas from the natural sciences to social and biomedical. And despite the fact that federal spending on science was originally motivated by the goal to provide funds for basic research, this kind of work accounts for only about $33 billion of federal funding annually. Of the rest, about $30 billion goes to applied research, or research conducted with specific ends in mind, such as lung cancer research, and just under $70 billion goes to development of existing technologies[1].

Federal spending on R&D has long been a magnet for criticism by members of both parties.  As early as 1975, Democratic Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin began the practice of handing out the “Golden Fleece award” each month to particularly wasteful government projects. Among the early winners were a study by the United States Department of Justice on why prisoners want to escape, a study by the National Institute for Mental Health on what happened in Peruvian brothels, and the aforementioned National Science Foundation study on the relative effects of tequila and gin on sunfish. While the Golden Fleece was handed out for the last time in 1988, government spending on seemingly frivolous projects has continued to this day. Within the past few years, the federal government has doled out millions to universities and private industries to study the effects of yoga and meditation on hot flashes; to create a robotic squirrel, dubbed “RoboSquirrel,” and study its effects on rattlesnakes; and to study how much golfers can benefit from imagining that the hole is bigger than it is. Now, it is true that each of these studies usually involves only a few hundred thousand dollars worth of funds, and that even dubious projects which run into the millions are dwarfed by the total federal budget spent on research and development each year. It is also true that bashing on these studies can be a cheap tactic to make rather redundant points about government spending. But it is also true that funds for these studies add up to substantial amounts, and that they should not be excused out of hand or escape the public eye simply because they are dwarfed by overall federal spending.

The crucial question for addressing federal science spending seems to be, in the words of a recent article in Forbes[1] , “In the face of these issues, how much and on what should we spend to continue to lead in scientific research?”[2] Vannevar Bush’s theory regarding basic research sounds compelling on paper, but we must examine it in light of the cold, hard fact that the United States government cannot continue to spend unchecked even on the most promising programs. When you add to this unfortunate reality the complication that government money goes to frivolous projects in addition to beneficial ones, the question posed by Forbes becomes a daunting one. To begin with, policymakers must do a better job distinguishing between beneficial and non-beneficial basic research. The nature of this sort of research, of course, makes immediate results difficult to isolate and reward, but it seems safe to say that RoboSquirrel will not contribute as much to the well-being of the American people over the long run as will funds dispensed for lymphoma research. In the world of science and development, not all capital is equal.  However, at present no federal organization, from the National Institutes for Health to the National Science Foundation, is making an effort to track down the long-term benefits and results from earlier basic research. This sort of tracking would be an obvious step toward ensuring that federal funds are diverted to the worthiest projects. The government’s forays into applied research and development of new technologies should also be brought under increased scrutiny, as wasteful spending is surely as entrenched here as in basic research, even if it may not be brought as colorfully or as often before the public eye.  The New Atlantis, a journal of science, technology, and public policy centered in Washington DC, plans to take charge where the government has not on this issue. One of its new reports, to be released sometime this summer, should be an important first step in analyzing how much federal spending on specific programs actually furthers basic research or the development of new technologies.

However, the larger question of how much the federal government should be spending on R&D in general, regardless of destination, is admittedly more complicated and lacks an obvious answer. At this point, the government is lodged inextricably in the R&D industry, and however many examples you may point to of private-sector successes or government-funded failures, that isn’t going to change any time soon. This does not mean that we should abandon all hope of spending reform. But it does mean that for the foreseeable future, reform must be carried out through the systems already in place. Federally-funded R&D must take its hit along with the rest of government if spending is to be controlled, however important it may be that the United States maintain its status as the worldwide leader in spending on research and technology. By better examining how effective specific projects are, the government can make cuts without crippling the national R&D industry. This nation has survived enormous adversity in the past, and it can surely survive in the future with less money devoted to projects like RoboSquirrel, and perhaps even with a less intimate understanding of the inner workings of Peruvian brothels.

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