04.19.2013 0

Trips To Mars And RoboSquirrels Are Great, But They’re Not The Job Of Government

NRD Editor’s Note: This column originally appeared at Forbes.com.

Landing on Mars. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

By Howard Rich — Exploration and discovery are among our most fundamental human characteristics — setting us apart from the animals and chronicling our ongoing evolution as a species. They are also drivers of our innovation and prosperity — creating technologies and economies that help sustain our society.

From Archimedes original “Eureka!” moment regarding water displacement to the powerful handheld smartphones that currently manage so many aspects of our daily lives, the imaginative process spawns new discoveries and fresh innovations every day.

But just because something has a stimulating effect on our minds — and potentially our wallets — doesn’t mean taxpayers should subsidize it. And just because there are a myriad of acknowledged practical applications derived from government funded research doesn’t mean these discoveries wouldn’t have been made — and made faster and cheaper — without government interference.

Nowhere in the United States Constitution is scientific research listed as being under the purview of the federal government — yet following World War II the decision was made to start pouring tax dollars into it regardless.

Planting the seeds for this ongoing investment was a letter written in November 1944 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt to the director of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development. Roosevelt wanted this agency — created in 1941 for military purposes– to refocus its efforts on “the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.”

“New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life,” Roosevelt wrote.

In the summer of 1945 the agency’s director Vannevar Bush issued a report firmly establishing scientific research — “the opening of new frontiers” — as a new responsibility of the federal government.

“Without scientific progress the national health would deteriorate; without scientific progress we could not hope for improvement in our standard of living or for an increased number of jobs for our citizens; and without scientific progress we could not have maintained our liberties against tyranny,” Bush wrote.

Bush’s statement may indeed be accurate, but does that make it either proper or efficacious for government to participate in this process? No — yet over the intervening decades exploration and discovery have clearly become top public sector priorities. For example from 1980-2011, data shows federal spending on non-defense related “research and development” soared by 49.5 percent after adjusting for inflation.

In his FY 2014 budget — belatedly released earlier this month — Barack Obama proposed spending $31.3 billion on the National Institutes of Health (NIH), $17.7 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and $7.6 billion on the National Science Foundation (NSF). Billions more will be spent on research and development at other agencies — including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Commerce (DOC).

All told, Obama’s budget proposal would increase federal spending on non-defense related research and development to a record $69.6 billion — up 9.2 percent from FY 2012 levels.

Included under the federal research umbrella are unnecessary expenditures large and small. Last year, for example, the DOE spent $100,000 on a smartphone app for household energy consumption — even though at least five such apps already existed. Meanwhile researchers at San Diego State University and the University of California Davis spent part of a $325,000 grant building a “Robo-Squirrel” (part of an effort to prove whether tail wagging was a deterrent to rattlesnake strikes). Meanwhile $1 million was spent cooking up a “Mars menu” for future astronauts — even though the space program currently lacks the capability for manned spaceflight.

These ridiculous projects were among the $18 billion worth of unnecessary spending items included in U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn’s 2012 Wastebook. Of course there are much larger examples of unnecessary research funding — like NASA’s $8 billion James Webb space telescope, or the $2.8 billion spent annually on the DOE’s renewable energy office or the $1 billion being spent by Commerce in the coming year to create fifteen new “manufacturing innovation institutes.”

What do any of these projects have to do with core government functions? Absolutely nothing.

Then there are the ghosts of research boondoggles past — like the infamous “Superconducting Super Collider,” which was cancelled in 1993 after the federal government sank $2 billion into the project ($3.1 billion adjusted for inflation). Also let’s not forget the never-constructed Clinch River Breeder Reactor, a nuclear energy project terminated in 1983 after taxpayers invested $1.7 billion ($3.9 billion adjusted for inflation).

Of course when it comes to taxpayer-subsidized “innovation,” success is every bit as costly as failure. That’s because even when government intervention in research and development is “working,” it distorts science as well as the marketplace — separating taxpayers from billions of dollars annually with no accountability and no guarantee the breakthroughs achieved couldn’t have been completed faster (and cheaper) had they been entrusted to the private sector.

And that’s the great unknown cost — the extent to which America’s current “innovation gap” is the result of the public sector crowding out the work of the free market.

Policymakers looking to trim future deficits — and spark a revival in innovation and advancement — ought to strongly consider getting government out of the research business and reestablishing the wall between science and state that existed prior to the post-World War II era.

Howard Rich is the chairman of Americans for Limited Government.

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