Newly elected Republicans claim they will use their control of the House to slash budgets across the federal government, including funding for science. Although these cuts will have few, if any, short-term effects on research and innovation, significant drops in patent filings and scientific discoveries could appear decades down the line.
The cycle through which federally funded basic science becomes economically important for industries and concrete consumer products operates on a 20-year cycle, making it impossible for academics and politicians to determine the exact relationship between publicly sponsored research and technological innovation. What researchers have determined, though, is that both budget cuts and rapid rises in financial support introduce dangerous volatility into research programs, and drastic changes in funding hurt research regardless of whether those changes increase or decrease agency budgets.
"I think it's very counterproductive to have these big swings where you first say 'Let's just throw money at the [National Institutes of Health],' because then people scramble to create a project for it. On the other hand, cutting it is very bad, because then you laid out a whole program for doing something, and you lose all the funding," said Sam Kortum, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago. "Volatility is the problem. It's just a bad way to run your research program, to have a huge uncertainty about the funding."
Historically, public and private funding of science have worked in relay. Federal money funds the initial research into a subject whose benefits appear too diffuse or abstract to produce significant profit, and then the private sector takes over when a field takes on more of an engineering than scientific character. Today, federal funding only accounts for $86 billion of America's $288 billion research and development spending, with the federal funding paying for basic research, and the private sector money going toward solving discrete engineering challenges. [Infographic: Science R&D Spending in the Federal Budget]
Generally, the public-private research cycle involves exclusive funding by the government for the first five years of the 20-year cycle, exclusive funding from private industry for the final five years and a hybrid of funding for the middle 10 years, according to a 2009 study by the Council for Chemical Research.
"The track record of past federal [research and development] investment is extremely good, although the benefits may be quite diffuse and take a long time to appear, said Bronwyn Hall, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. "Think of the Internet, an outgrowth of federal spending on networks back in the 1950s and 1960s."
Even though publicly funded research clearly impacts innovation in positive ways, the drawn-out timeframe and muddled connections to measurable improvements make it difficult to prove that funding cuts will actually result in a loss of scientific prowess.
If the budget cuts are reversed within the next two elections, then the yo-yoing of funding may cause more problems than the budget cuts themselves, Kortum said. Additionally, the science may very well already be overfunded, making the cuts a fiscally prudent move.
"I would err on the side of doing more, but we also have a large deficit, so that argument doesn't cut very deep. It's frustrating, because on some level, predictions of huge payoffs may be true, but we can't prove it,” Kortum told LiveScience.
"There's very little ability to know if we should be spending $100 billion or $200 billion on science."
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Stuart Fox is a staff writer for TechNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.
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