R&D Funding – An Investment that Looks Like an Entitlement

February 20th, 2008

Posted by: admin

This post is prompted by the following quote from Raymond Orbach. Dr. Orbach is the head of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science, one of the casualties of the government’s inability (or unwillingness) to fully fund the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI). The ACI was announced in 2006, and, among other things, would double federal funding for the physical sciences at DOE, the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The quote is taken from Dr. Orbach’s January 30 remarks at the Universities Research Association. (Hat tip from the American Institute of Physics’ FYI Bulletin. His remarks focused on the challenges facing the research community with the recent budget problems. I want to focus on the following quote for a particular idea.

“Compounding this danger is that we scientists tend to regard the proposed increases for the physical sciences under the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act as an entitlement. That attitude has failed us.”

Research funding as an entitlement? I’m guessing Orbach was hoping to get a rise out of people, but the idea is worth examining.

What are the other entitlements in American politics? Where the budget is concerned, there is Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Before the welfare reform legislation of 1996, welfare would have made that list. There are no doubt other programs that are also considered entitlements – programs with set amounts assigned to it, which increase with the cost of inflation, or some other regular process.

Well, federal research and development funding has certainly not increased in regular increments, tied to inflation or any other measure. There have been attempts – successful and not – to double the budgets for the research agencies. But there’s is no benefit formula attached to these considerations. Social Security and Medicare benefits are connected to specific formulas, but doubling the NIH budget wasn’t connected to any particular scientific output or outcome (aside from presumed improvements in health). So on the face of it, research and development funding does not resemble federal entitlements.

But the science community (certainly the science advocacy community) can appear like it wants regular increases to the science budgets (and I suspect you can find statements to that effect on various organizations’ web sites). Without an effective communication strategy for why the community wants these increases, it can appear that scientists are just another group with a hand out. Given the public perception that scientists are disconnected, part of the elite, out of touch; and combine that with the difficulty of effectively capturing the outputs and outcomes of that research funding, I certainly understand where people could get this idea. I would certainly understand that people would express disdain at current attempts to double NIH funding, because it was already doubled within the last few years.

So, let me put these questions out there – how can we make R&D funding – and the associated campaigns for it – look less like asking for an entitlement? If you don’t think the requests for R&D funding *look like* asking for an entitlement, how would you defuse that criticism? Remember, in policy and politics it’s often as much about how things look than how they are (just burrow into the current Presidential campaign for examples).

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