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Commentary: Throwing Money At Science Just Creates A Monster

Commentary: Throwing Money At Science Just Creates A Monster

It's one of the rites of spring in Washington--scientists crying wolf over federal funding. Every year, as Congress crafts a new budget, the research community proclaims that the crippling of American technology and competitiveness is at hand. Their beef: disappointing increases for the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, and other sacred research agencies.

The howling is especially intense this year. Instead of merely curbing growth in the science budget, Congress aims to take an unprecedented chunk out of the $50 billion federal research and development edifice. Republican plans would ax more than $2 billion in technology and energy programs, cut hundreds of millions from the NSF, and even shrink the NIH's $11 billion budget by up to 5%. Technopundits predict catastrophe. "These budgets will absolutely destroy the infrastructure of science and technology," says Mary L. Good, head of the Technology Administration at the Commerce Dept.

Well, not necessarily. Rather than killing American science, drastic cuts could be just the painful medicine the whole enterprise needs. The sad truth is that federally funded research has mushroomed into a grossly inefficient system, hampered by bloated bureaucracies and rising mediocrity. Downsizing "is a golden opportunity," says materials scientist Rustum Roy of Pennsylvania State University.

"A DISGRACE." For example, there are four layers of bureaucrats overseeing the Energy Dept.'s 20 major laboratories, notes former NSF director Erich Bloch. "It's a disgrace," he says. Former Motorola Inc. Chairman Robert W. Galvin, who headed a recent study of the 10 biggest labs, suggests wholesale reform could slice their $6 billion lab budget in half--without touching the science at all.

But taming bureaucracies is only part of the solution. Today's R&D Establishment, based largely on academic scientists receiving government largesse, is a Malthusian nightmare come true. Its institutions sprang out of the gangbusters growth years of the 1950s, '60s, and '80s. And everyone has come to depend on ever-growing budgets.

Over a typical career, an academic scientist cultivates 15 new PhDs--most of whom eventually clamor for federal grants to start their own labs. The resulting system, like the insatiable plant in Little Shop of Horrors, only stays healthy when Uncle Sam responds to its incessant demand: "Feed me." Science already is suffering as a result. "Instead of spending my time doing physics, I now spend my time trying to raise funds," says California Institute of Technology physicist David Goodstein. "That change threatens the future of science."

The solution isn't more money. Instead, the science community needs to overhaul a system fated to produce more aspiring scientists than Uncle Sam can support. That doesn't necessarily mean training fewer new PhDs. Rather, "not every PhD should be at a university," says Bloch. "Some of them should go to work." At the very least, PhD training should be broadened to make new grads more attractive to industry.

ARTICLE OF FAITH. Fixing the system also means grappling with one of science's dirty secrets: Many researchers aren't worthy of funding. "It's a small elite that does most of the work," says Caltech's Goodstein. The obvious policy implication: Identify and reward this scientific elite, while being careful to nurture the best young talent. Then ruthlessly trim funding for the also-rans in universities and government labs. Painful, yes. But it's no different from the downsizing already forced on the business world. The result would be both billions in savings and better research.

In all the current wailing over the GOP budget proposals, you won't hear leaders of American science admit that the system needs fixing. "They have an almost mystical faith in continued expansion," says Representative George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), former chairman of the House Science Committee.

Of course, the GOP has an almost mystical faith in cost-cutting; it shouldn't be trusted to downsize science effectively. But its proposals should be a wake-up call. If they really don't want U.S. science and technology to be crippled, scientists should stop bellyaching and start healing themselves.