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Who Should Fund Scientific Research? How Much?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Source: League of Women Voters

Money and politics go together like sodium and chloride–an important element (in the non-chemical sense of the term) of life that can also be corrosive and deadly. The third question in’s list of top 14 science questions that President Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney should address this election year has to do with federal funding of scientific research. Unlike climate change, where there is a scientific consensus that warming is happening and that humans are at fault, there can be no scientific answer, I would argue, to the question “Should scientific research be funded with public moneys or private or some mix of both?”

Still, given science’s role in fueling the economy, I think it makes sense to explore the funding issue more deeply.

3. Research and the Future. Federally funded research has helped to produce America’s major postwar economies and to ensure our national security, but today the UK, Singapore, China, and Korea are making competitive investments in research.  Given that the next Congress will face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in research in your upcoming budgets?

A few facts to get the conversation started . . .

  1. The federal budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which starts in October, has still not been decided, although Congressional leaders announced on July 31 that they had reached a tentative deal to keep the government open through a continuing resolution.
  2. Total US government spending through July 2012 is expected to be $2.975 trillion dollars, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Total receipts as of that date were $2 trillion, giving a deficit of $975 billion.
  3. The 2013 budget for the National Institutes of Health, the premiere source for federal funding of medical research, may be somewhere just under $31 billion.
  4. NASA has asked for $17.7 billion for 2013.
  5. The National Science Foundation has asked for $7.373 billion for 2013.

I look forward to your comments.

Update (Sept. 5, 2012): Click to see the answers to the top 14 science questions from Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

Election 2012 button used under Creative Commons license BY 2.0.

About the Author: Christine Gorman is the editor in charge of health and medicine features for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Follow on Twitter @cgorman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sjn 3:53 pm 08/10/2012

    Why is it that in these discussions, SA always ignores this little fact.

    Latest full year R&D funding I could find on NSF (
    Total Funding 141 Billion
    Health 31 Billion
    Total Military 85 Billion

    Military spending as a % of total non-health federal R&D : 75% !!!!!

    Until the scientific community is willing to join the rest of the 99% in questioning why US federal spending via (income) tax dollars (as opposed to hiding the numbers by throwing in social security) is so overwhelmingly dominated by the military establishment, this conversation will be a waste of bandwidth.

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  2. 2. mbtw1 4:26 pm 08/10/2012

    Federal dollars should not go towards scientific research, it’s unconstitutional for the feds to fund scientific research as they are currently doing.
    it used to be that research was done by companies, by entrepreneurs who could get others to believe in their vision.
    States, on the other hand, I think could fund all the research they want. It would also work better because more projects would get funded (although to a lesser extent). letting evolution work itself out, failed ideas would die before billions of dollars went into them, as opposed to the feds sinking billions more into ideas that have already proven faulty.

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  3. 3. priddseren 4:50 pm 08/10/2012

    I know who should not fund scientific research and that is the government. For every useful thing the government research has discovered, hundreds upon hundreds of usless research has been wasted on totally bad science and bad ideas. The useful things would have been found by private people and industry eventually.

    That said, there is the issue of military research, where in fact it makes sense for the government to encourage this because they do happen to be the most efficient way to have a military. No, it is not more efficient to have militias and posse gangs running around pretending to be a military. Most of the useful things, like the Internet or GPS came out of research for military spending, so overall this is probably the only area where it makes sense.

    The reason it is bad for government in geneneral to find research is unlike a private person or company, the politicians and bureaucrats will focus money and effort on the most ridiculous and pointless nonsense and worse, even after proven to be pointless or useless, the politician will likely increase funding for this junk science is some belief they can just throw money at changing junk science into something real. A business or a person will focus effort and money on what is most likely to work and most likely to have some sort of future benefit and they will ignore or at the very least end research on junk science and bad ideas.

    The other big problem with government funding is the parasitical relationship government and research companies eventually form. For example, if taxpayer money fund the research for anything, then all of the intellectual property for that research should be owned by the public. However, what really happens is government money pays for the research but the intellectual property that comes out of the research somehow ends up owned by the scientists or companies contracted to do the research. This is totally wrong. If those companies or scientists want to patent something or own the rights to it, then they need to fund the research themselves.

    The other problem with government paid research is the government will do things like the announcement made by the government last year their claim that the only legitimate scientists are ones who have been funded by government grants, determining that any scientist who has never worked for the government or used a grant is somehow not legitimate.

    I have to disagree with the author’s comment about politics and money going hand in hand like sodium and chloride forming something useful and needed like table salt. Instead money and politics goes together like coal plant produced sulfur dioxide and rain, forming acid rain, which then eats away at everything, eventually destroying whatever it touches.

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  4. 4. MARCHER 5:38 pm 08/10/2012

    Excellent analysis.

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  5. 5. sjn 6:04 pm 08/10/2012

    If you seriously want to look at how government funded R&D can promote useful economic activity, you need to look at a country like Germany, that has been successful in maintaining high wage, high level manufacturing within the country, most unlike the US.

    As a technologist for a US based multinational that had to compete with subsidized German competitors, it is clear that one high value approach used in Germany is the network of Fraunhoffer institutes.

    These are research institutes scattered across Germany that get approximately half of their funding from the national government. The other half comes from corporate funding. Their mandate is to move advanced technology from the research universities into commercial production.

    They do this by forming partnerships with individual companies to scale up and commercialize advanced technologies. The companies get a massive government subsidy, as half their development and scale up costs are paid by the government. The companies effectively dictate which technologies they think are commercially viable by selecting which projects to fund.

    This looks like it also has an advantage of insulating the public university system from becoming a branch of corporate R&D, as is rapidly occurring in the US. THis should allow the public universities to maintain as a source of independent & (hopefully more) unbiased information, while allowing us to grow hi-tech manufacturing and engineering.

    Programs such as this are one reason Germany still maintains a mid level engineering and manufacturing infrastructure, which is a better source of high wage jobs than the US solution to outsource everthing except the lower wage service sectors.

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  6. 6. rabraha3 9:28 am 08/11/2012

    I think it will be difficult for people to comment without knowing HOW the government funds the sciences and without giving a precise definition of what science funding means. Is it an umbrella term; are we talking the funding of all STEM subjects (e.g. is technology included)?

    I can really only speak for so-called “basic” science (I do astrophysics [graduate student] and I personally get most of my funding from NASA). There is no way any company would fund the majority of physics or any astronomy. Much of chemistry and biology, too, cannot be made into profit.

    Sort of by definition, the majority of companies out there today would be unwilling to take on the risk that basic science means, because nearly ALL avenues of investigation are dead ends. How else are we to learn the unknown? Government, both state and national, are the only entities which can support research into basic science.

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  7. 7. geojellyroll 9:54 am 08/11/2012

    Let’s see…15.7 TRILLION in debt. This year’s deficit is already 70% higher than forecast 2 years ago. Despite pollyanish predictions, no end in sight.

    The government should be funding research? Hint…there is no money for research. Every US citizen will be THOUSANDS more in debt more this year than last year and more THOUSANDS next year. The equvalent is a family of 4 buying a new car every year on credit and never paying a cent on it and then buying one next year,,and the next. that’s how much YOUR family is on the hook for….times 16. You went out and bought 16 new cars and the monthy bill has arriverd.

    Money for research…ha! ha! ha!

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  8. 8. Christine Gorman 5:21 pm 08/11/2012

    sjn: I’ve only recently heard about some of the German public-private research partnerships that you are talking about. The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft for applied research is particularly interesting in that regard.

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  9. 9. Christine Gorman 5:43 pm 08/11/2012

    geojellyroll: Citations, please. The latest data from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (cited in the article above) shows that the 2012 deficit is so far $125 billion LESS than the 2011 deficit was at the same point last year.

    For a well-informed look at the future budget issues and the ever-growing federal debt, see the CBO’s 2012 “Long-Term Budget Outlook” at

    As the CBO report shows, the expiration of the Bush-era tax cuts on January 1 combined with spending cuts (which they describe as the “extended baseline scenario”), will do more to keep the deficit from exploding.

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  10. 10. Christine Gorman 6:05 pm 08/11/2012

    rabraha3: Here is a graph from the World Bank showing research and development funding as a percentage of GDP. Granted, it doesn’t say how the moneys are raised or whether they are spent primarily on defense, basic or applied research. But it’s a start.

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  11. 11. azcat 12:34 pm 08/13/2012

    You should look at this in terms of total funding.

    NIH budget :$30.86B

    f-35 program: $233B

    A single defense program is almost 10 times the entire NIH budget. One gives us scientific discoveries which have saved many lives and the other has the capability to end the lives of a lot of people. I am not saying we don’t need a strong defense, but how is the NIH responsible for the budget deficit? It is a drop in a $1Trillion deficit. The cost of the Afgan war dwarfs this budget. Will Pharmas fund the basic research into genetics, which happens in fruit flies? You would call this a waste, but this tells us much about how genes interact in an organism. Would you prefer that research happen on humans?

    I actually think that Pharmas should have to pay a royalty when they use federal research to create a new drug. That way we can recoup some of the cost of government research, but you cannot seriously argue that research spending is the cause of the budget deficit.

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  12. 12. willemta 1:05 pm 08/13/2012

    Just so no one is confused by SJN’s comments. Total federal spending (not just research money)on defense for the year 2010, e.g. was only 20%, while that of Medicare and Medicaid was 23% ( Unfortunately Democrats want the world to believe we spend significantly more on defense spending (by spinning the numbers and moving items around), but healthcare spending is significantly higher and rising at a faster rate than defense.

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  13. 13. DrJehr1 5:30 pm 08/16/2012

    willemta, sjn is correct. Before the Viet Nam war, social security and medicare were a separate budget. LBJ combined them to hide the excessive cost of the war. We have a separate tax (FICA) to pay for them and they should be considered separately. If one does this the outlandish cost of our total military budget becomes clear. It is teh total spent on ‘defense’ which is of concern. No five, or even 10 nations spend as much as we do, COMBINED!, and there is no potential adversary of any kind to justify this kind of expense. See conservative David Stockman’s (Reagan’s director of the OMB) op-ed in the NY Times:

    A comparison of spending and income of our government in the 1950′s and 60′s, when our system worked, shows that the upper 1% have been successful in shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the middle class. This is the cause of our ‘lack of money’ to pay for essential government services. The middle class is broke; our country isn’t. The middle class can’t pay any more of the burden yet the rich (through the GOP) are asking for another tax break. If we are to remain a world leader in science we must address the shortage in revenues and the misappropriation of our national wealth to pay for unneeded weapons.

    During the 50-60′s we built the entire interstate system, funded a fleet of nuclear aircraft carriers and submarines, went to the moon! and built tens of thousands of new schools to house the baby boomers. We also funded large amounts of scientific research and education, which led to the computer revolution and the internet. All this was done with a population of less than 1/2 of today, without the huge deficits of today (there were deficits, but they were in line with our economic growth).

    As for the proposed questions referred to in the article, a more simplistic approach needs to be taken. Many people still don’t believe that climate change is a crisis, much less a problem. Questions should address scientific illiteracy in the US as well as how to educate people to the threat which climate change presents. Simply returning to our system of 50 years ago would go a long way toward restoring our scientific prowess.

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