Why Private Companies Won't Make Up for Cuts in Government Science Funding

A military scientist operates a laser in a test environment Courtesy United States Air Force Research Laboratory

The budget cuts that took effect on Friday could wipe out as much as $54 billion in federal funding of science, research, and innovation over the next five years, calculates the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Given that the government spends about half as much on research and development as the private sector does, according to estimates from the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD), a think tank, what’s the big deal? The answer, says Vladimir López-Bassols, an analyst with OECD, is that government R&D spending—$124 billion in 2009 (PDF), according to the latest data—has delivered proportionately greater returns on long-term economic growth.

“The government funds primarily basic research. This is where radical innovation and fundamental scientific breakthroughs happen,” he says. “It’s where, say, the next Internet would come from.”

Private companies focus their research on products they can sell—say, making a desktop computer incrementally faster, or an erectile dysfunction drug marginally longer-lasting. The government, on the other hand, can fund moonshots, the kinds of high-risk, high-reward research that decades later might spawn brand-new industries.

The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation calculates that the full weight of the research cuts could reduce U.S. gross domestic product by a minimum of $203 billion from now to 2021 and would result in 200,000 job losses this year alone.

In honor of the pending cuts, here is a list of some of the bigger scientific advances funded by federal R&D budgets over the last six decades:

Lasers: The work to generate and tame a concentrated beam of electromagnetic radiation had several fathers, but Charles Townes is considered the inventor of modern laser technology. With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Navy, Townes and his researchers proved in 1953 that the concept was possible with the “maser,” or a microwave amplifier. He later helped pioneer the laser patented by Bell Labs.

The Internet: The beloved offspring of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Internet began life in 1969 as a small network of military connected computers. It later linked up with universities—and eventually, the public—and was commercialized in the early 1990s.

GPS: Hatched as a satellite navigation system inside the Department of Defense in the early 1970s, the Global Positioning System has become a critical piece of technology, enabling long-range mobile phone calls, assisting in disaster relief efforts, and resolving countless automobile-based marital disputes, among other uses.

Human Genome Project: This project got off the ground in 1990 thanks to research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). Twenty years later the project has yielded myriad breakthroughs in molecular science and DNA forensics. Backing the Human Genome Project generated an impressive return on investment for Uncle Sam, too: According to one study, federal investment in genomic research—calculated at $3.8 billion from 1990 to 2003—generated an economic impact of $796 billion.

Bone grafts and a lead on a cancer cure: Some politicians like to slam the more esoteric projects that attract federal funding (ahem, Rand Paul), but even the most narrow research can yield practical applications. Coral reefs research, funded by the NIH, led scientists over two decades to develop super-sturdy coralline bone grafts in the 1980s. Meanwhile, scientists who identified the green fluorescent protein in jellyfish earned a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008 after their research ushered in a series of breakthroughs to better understand the origins of cancer and Alzheimer’s on the cellular level. Their work was funded by the NIH and NSF. Who knows what the goldfish will teach us?

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