The Sources and Uses of U.S. Science Funding
The technological innovation that has driven much of the world’s economic development since the Industrial Revolution would not have been possible without scientific knowledge. Americans have long recognized the importance of science and technology for our prosperity, health, and security, and have invested substantial amounts of money in supporting the scientific enterprise — both privately and through government.
The conventional political wisdom regarding public financing for science can be seen in the 2011 Economic Report of the President, in which President Barack Obama’s economic advisors wrote that “basic scientific breakthroughs … underpin commercial innovation but provide little or no direct profit themselves, so basic scientific research relies heavily on public support.” This sort of thinking has been influential in American politics since the end of the Second World War, when the engineer Vannevar Bush delivered to President Truman his report on how to pioneer the “new frontiers of the mind” opened by the natural sciences. In that report, titled Science, The Endless Frontier (1945), Bush argued for the importance of what he called “basic research,” which he defined as scientific work that is “performed without thought of practical ends.” Such research, Bush claimed, “creates the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn” and “is the pacemaker of technological progress.” But because it lacks any immediate application, and because the benefits of fundamental scientific breakthroughs may be difficult for companies to profit from directly, there is a strong case for public support for this kind of scientific work.
The wide acceptance of this conventional wisdom among both policymakers and the public at large means that fundamental questions about the funding of science generally go unasked. Is the money that Congress annually appropriates for scientific research wisely spent? Is government-funded research effective at achieving scientific breakthroughs, or at fostering technological innovation? How does the scientific work funded by the federal government compare to work funded by other sources, and how does the funding of science in America compare to other countries around the world?