The Most Important Issue Obama and Romney Aren’t Discussing

We need to take a hard, critical look at the way we fund federal research. But politicians aren’t interested.

President Obama tours a science and engineering complex
President Obama tours a science and engineering complex

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On May 21, Future Tense will host an event in Washington, D.C., called “How To Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise.” We’ll discuss how the United States approaches science and technology research, the role government should play in funding, and more. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America Foundation’s website.

As they battle for the White House, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are trying hard to highlight their differences on a range of urgent questions: war and peace, the economy, taxes. But there is one issue on which they are almost completely in agreement: federal spending on science and technology research. Their shared position is straightforward—more is better.

Because the U.S. government already spends an enormous amount on S&T, about $130 billion annually, Obama and Romney can simply promise to protect the status quo. But this unusual bit of polite bipartisanship threatens to harm the nation’s innovation system.

Neither candidate will ask, for instance, why taxpayers spend some $30 billion annually to try to understand the basic causes of diseases but virtually nothing on delivering effective new medical therapies to the ill. Or why the departments of defense and energy invest enormous resources in developing military technologies that are difficult, if not impossible, to translate for civilian applications.

While less than 5 percent of the total U.S. budget, our research spending almost equals what the rest of the world’s governments’ outlay on S&T combined. To the extent that S&T spending is debated at all, arguments occur over how much money should be spent and by which agencies. Since a mere eight federal agencies receive about 97 percent of total S&T funds, the most energetic disagreements occur between heavyweights. How the spoils are divided is substituted for rigorous examination of goals and outcomes of the federal research enterprise.

But presidential candidates are not asking questions about who benefits, and how, from S&T spending. Judging by the priorities of Obama and Romney, fundamental questions about S&T seem likely to continue to go unasked in campaign 2012. Their convenient agreement obscures a set of important decisions that are made essentially behind closed doors, by scientists and technologists and their federal patrons. These decisions ought to be debated in the open, and the presidential candidates need to start the wider conversation.

In their debates, Obama and Romney should reserve some time for such questions as:

  1. How can we convert research advances into employment for ordinary Americans and also manage the inevitable job-destroying tendencies of some federally funded innovations?
  2. Is there a way to discuss efficiency and outcomes in S&T without setting off a firestorm among researchers? And if spending cuts have to take place to reduce the federal deficit, how can policymakers justify continued investment in research?
  3. What is the role of the Department of Defense in providing S&T that benefits all Americans, instead of just addressing national security needs? DOD has a long tradition of giving birth to important technologies, like drone aircraft, while civilian departments have less impressive records achievement. So should the Defense Department also be tasked with adapting to climate change or creating and implementing alternative energy sources?

Given the growing popularity of “citizen science” activities, plus the power of social media and the Internet for convening vigorous discussions, we have the opportunity to hold a much more inclusive conversation about S&T policies—moving well beyond the tiny, insular communities of those who either lead S&T agencies or evaluate them.  

One obstacle to rethinking S&T policies lies with bureaucratic realities. The chief agencies—Defense, Energy, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and NASA—rarely, if ever, criticize one another’s projects. Duplication of missions is rife, and there are virtually no consequences for failure so long as researchers can report that they sincerely tried to succeed.

For much of the past 65 years, scientists and engineers have essentially told the government, “Trust us.” Through the self-regulation of peer review, scientists and engineers essentially judge the value of their own work, resisting attempts to permit ordinary citizens to express their own preferences, either directly or through elected representatives. Despite some significant exceptions, such as research on certain diseases and in specific areas of national security, a rigid philosophy of government-funded research has prevailed: Government can decide on what level to fund S&T, but research priorities should be the purview, chiefly if not exclusively, of the scientists and engineers themselves.

That attitude—the geeks know best!—began during World War II and took root in the early years of Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. Under the leadership of Vannevar Bush, President Roosevelt’s science adviser during World War II, scientists and engineers, working closely with the military and usually in complete secrecy, spawned an array of innovations from mass-producible penicillin, to radar detection of enemy planes and bombs, to the atomic bomb. These advances helped the Allies win the war—and then, postwar, decisively turned the United States into a world power.

In the late 1940s, Bush, then working for President Truman, led a political movement to institutionalize government support for S&T with few strings attached. In exchange for funding the exploration of what Bush labeled “the endless frontier,” researchers would receive a form of government welfare that at once provided them with job security and insulation from normal political accountability. Later thinkers described the arrangement as “the contract” between science and government.

Today that contract is in danger of breaking down. In the face of the global economic downturn, political disarray at the national level, and protracted challenges to the nation’s public health, environmental quality, industrial base, and energy system, the simple formula expressed by Vannevar Bush no longer makes sense.

Obama and Romney can change that by agreeing to explore, jointly or separately, the state of America’s S&T nation. What they may find is a well-funded but underperforming government knowledge enterprise that, despite world leadership in expertise across a range of crucial techno-scientific areas, is failing to translate into better quality of life—especially in health, transportation, and environmental safety—for most Americans.

To be sure, Obama and Romney—and voters—are confronted with urgent challenges that are far removed from the lofty realms of science and invention. Research funding doesn’t inspire voters the way abortion, tax policy, and same-sex marriage do. But the politics of science and technology will have enormous effects on the public in the years to come—and the candidates may be the only ones who can make that clear to the American electorate.