What academia can do for DoD - Armed Forces Journal
There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the challenges faced by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as he works to manage the shrinking of the U.S. defense budget without severely compromising our nation’s security interests. One compelling strategy, however, has received relatively little attention: increasing the amount spent on cost-benefit research.
The Defense Department needs to cut the programs that don’t work and keep the ones that do. Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear which programs don’t work. What’s more, there are not effective mechanisms in place to make those determinations. Many groups within DoD are dedicated to evaluating programs’ cost-effectiveness, and many of these agencies have large staffs of economists, engineers and operations researchers. However, in my experience, many of the researchers within the defense establishment are not given the independence or support necessary to ask hard questions or to publicize unpopular results.
What DoD needs are more “outside” cost-benefit analyses not conducted or influenced by the suppliers or the procuring organizations. Many organizations — both within DoD and in the private sector — could potentially conduct these analyses. Academic researchers could contribute substantially to this effort. Academic research is often the least costly option and could lead to high-quality objective assessments of important and expensive defense programs. But academic researchers can get involved only if they have access to data and can publish their findings.
Relative to the size of the defense budget, the amount of attention that academics pay to defense issues is minuscule. Defense-related spending totaled $1 trillion in fiscal 2011, or 16 percent of the total federal, state and local government budget. These numbers are comparable to the amounts spent on pensions ($1 trillion), health care ($1.1 trillion) and education ($0.9 trillion). And unlike entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicaid, which primarily involve paying out previous obligations, the defense budget is largely discretionary, meaning that choices made today affect spending in the immediate future. Despite the economic importance of the topic, the most popular public finance textbooks include chapters on education, Social Security and health care, but none on defense. A search for “defense,” “military” or “national security” on the EconLit database of published economics articles produces 6,157 articles, less than one-sixth as many as the 39,820 that show up in a search for “education” or “school.