A Broader Vision for Government Research: Too Many Federal Agencies Lack the Research Funds They Need to Stimulate Innovative Solutions to National Problems. (Perspectives)

By Kalil, Thomas | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

A Broader Vision for Government Research: Too Many Federal Agencies Lack the Research Funds They Need to Stimulate Innovative Solutions to National Problems. (Perspectives)


Kalil, Thomas, Issues in Science and Technology


In recent years, the question of "balance" has been a hot topic in science policy circles. Although federal support for biomedical research has increased significantly, support for the physical sciences, engineering, and social sciences has been flat or has even declined in real terms. This is an important issue and clearly needs to be addressed.

However, there is another sense in which the government's research portfolio lacks balance. R&D plays an important role in meeting some national goals, such as national security, health, and space exploration. However, for other national goals, such as improving student performance, promoting sustainable development, and empowering more Americans to lift themselves out of poverty, it plays little or no role.

Noted science fiction author William Gibson once observed that "The future is here, it's just not evenly distributed." A similar comment could be made about the ability of the U.S. government and the research community to help create the future. Some agencies, such as the Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, have the budget and the capacity to support research and innovation on problems that are related to their mission. Others, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the Departments of Education, Labor, State, and Housing and Urban Development, have little or no such capability.

This imbalance may limit our ability to support research in what Donald Stokes referred to as "Pasteur's Quadrant" and what Gerald Holton and Gerhard Sonnert have called Jeffersonian science: research that pursues fundamental understanding but is also motivated by consideration of some practical problem. If the agency charged with advancing a particular set of national goals has little or no ability to support research, and if such research is not an attractive investment for firms, there may be important and systemic gaps in the nation's research portfolio.

Moreover, these gaps are likely to persist over time. Federal budgets tend to be incremental. If an agency has little or no money for research, this is not likely to change from one year to the next. Furthermore, agencies don't know what they don't know. If they don't have a strong relationship with the research enterprise, they are unlikely to appreciate how research funding might help them achieve their objectives or what scientific and technological advances they might be able to exploit. Finally, the lack of a vibrant community of leading researchers interested in a particular problem deters agencies from trying to create one. There may be lengthy startup costs associated with creating such a community, during which time there may be little or no payoff.

To evaluate the opportunity costs of these gaps, it is necessary to understand the benefits that can flow from creating a high-quality, well-supported, multidisciplinary community of researchers that are interested in helping to meet a particular national policy objective.

How research helps

First, research can advance the state of the art in an area of science and technology that will make it easier or less expensive to meet a given national goal, or even reframe the way that a policy issue is debated or discussed. For example, EPA currently pursues the goal of a cleaner environment primarily through command and control regulation, as opposed to supporting the creation and diffusion of technologies that minimize pollution in the first place. Greater emphasis on the latter approach might allow the United States to achieve its environmental objectives while reducing the economic costs imposed by regulations. Increased support for research in experimental economics and mechanism design would allow policymakers to understand when and how to use market-oriented mechanisms such as the EPA's "cap-and-trade" program for acid rain. …

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