Federal Investment in Scientific Research Is a Broken System


Occasionally, it will shock no one to hear, there’s a difference between what politicians say and what they do.  Once in a great while, though, the difference is so stark and bald it is dumfounding even to the jaded American public. This time in history will be remembered that way.

Inflation-adjusted federal R&D
Graph by John Irons / via
(Click to enlarge.)

From President Obama down, practically every politician in the country talks about the need for math and science education so we can produce more mathematicians, scientists and engineers. What those same politicians are doing, however, has destroyed the job market for scientists by decreasing funding for their best work.

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The rhetoric is wrong, to start with, because the idea is backward. Science is the child of civilization, not her mother. To emphasize education in science, then, is to de-emphasize education in the culture that makes science possible, and which produces a populace capable of understanding science and using it wisely. Government has done a superb job of robbing support from the arts and humanities, crippling the ability of people to learn and appreciate science. It is a destructive but pervasive myth that computing, building and competing are more important than thinking, creating and cooperating.

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Now let’s consider where the good minds are, and what is happening to them.

The American intelligentsia are concentrated on university campuses and, for scientists, in the federal government. We’ve come very close to destroying both institutions. Both government and education are objects of ridicule. The two most obnoxious, worn-out jokes in the conventional schtick are, “I’m from the federal government and I’m here to help,” and “My degree is in theater arts. Want fries with that?”

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The difference between public and private higher education is all but obliterated because legislatures, one after the next, find the expenditures for state colleges and universities convenient targets for cuts, arguing that the schools can raise funds from alumni—that they can, in other words, go private. The schools do, then, raise money, but often not so much from alumni as from corporations. So to prepare for an education in veterinary medicine at the University of Arkansas, one first must take prerequisites in “poultry science.” Yes. Poultry science, so that if you don’t make a vet, you can at least mistreat millions of crazy albino chickens for Tyson Foods. The same institution, with money from the Walmart Waltons, has become a center for the promotion of measures to destroy public education—vouchers and public charter schools. So much for the public university.

spending charg
Graph by National Science Foundation; Bureau of Economic Analysis / via
(Click to enlarge.)

At the federal level, three devastating things have happened to science and responsible research. First, federal funds have been pulled from university research programs—except, of course, for the war machine.  Second, again excepting spooks and killers, funds for scientific research have been reduced within the federal government. Finally, Congress has directed changes in the kinds of research government scientists are expected to perform.

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Research in science falls into three categories: basic, applied and developmental. The fun and excitement are in basic research—the kind where you get some money with no specific goal in mind, but are expected to make discoveries that advance human knowledge. The opportunity to do basic research is the reason the federal government traditionally has been able to attract top-flight scientific talent. In the last couple of decades, however, Congress and administrations have been less and less willing to fund this work—meaning it is left to universities, whose funds also are being curtailed.

Instead, government scientists are supposed to do more applied research, which the private sector can do, and developmental research, which the private sector should do. Government scientists, in fact, often do things that the private sector either could or should do—because they are told to do them—then get accused of competing with the private sector, and lose more money to budget cuts. Shrewd politics, stupid policy. The history of our success in government-funded basic research seems lost on us.

It’s not as though basic research isn’t being done. It’s just being done outside America, quite frequently by great scientists educated in American universities. Fine scientific education has become an important American export; fine research is for others.

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Graphs by National Science Foundation, OECD / via (Click to enlarge.)
Graphs by National Science Foundation, OECD / via
(Click to enlarge.)

All this is not likely to get a lot better with a Congress that believes less in government and less in science all the time. That’s what makes the lip service so objectionable. We’re not going to pour the resources into renewable-energy research that is required to fix the problem with global warming. In fact, we’re actively fighting advances on that front. We’re not likely to put enough money into stem-cell research, or make embryonic stem cells available to science, or support immune-system stimulation enough to avoid the consequences of the rapidly approaching end of efficacy of antibiotics.

No, we’re going to put our money into killing people. That’s a lot easier to sell to a gullible and fearful and increasingly ignorant public.

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Ah, well, there’s a little work for physicists and such in the drone program. It’ll feed their families. It just won’t feed their souls or save the planet, which is not surprising when the prevailing political opinion has it that the planet does not need saving.