Is the Government Equipped to Compete in Research?

Many of you work in scientifically-oriented agencies. These agencies have many functions, one of which is often scientific research. And yet, while we often hear about innovations made by prominent university professors at top-tier schools, or the latest drug breakthrough from a pharmaceutical company, it is less often that we hear about the achievements of government research.

Is the government accomplishing less than its academic and industry counterparts, or do we simply hear about it less? Without research as our primary mission, are we really equipped to compete on a research front with industry and academia? Of course, there are two sides to this argument.

Yes, government researchers can compete with the best of them.

1. We can think big. Government researchers have a luxury rarely found anywhere else: we have the opportunity to tackle projects that are so big that a single academic laboratory, university department, or single company could never afford them. Take, for example, the Manhattan Project, or NASA’s task of sending man to the moon in the 1960’s: these projects were such huge undertakings, both scientifically and financially, that they couldn’t have been accomplished by any one company or university. Even collaboration between universities probably would not have been enough to achieve Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon in a manner considered timely by the people. Because there can be an overarching sense of national mission, government is able to think big and tackle projects that are simply too overwhelming to be addressed any other way.

2. Government scientists can focus. One of the great things about being a government scientist is that my entire job consists of very little besides…my job. That is to say, it’s my occupation to do research, and relative to my peers in academia and industry, I’m not asked to focus on a lot besides that. Of course, we have to keep budgetary issues in mind (especially in the current budget climate), and yes, there is always plenty of administrative red tape, but my performance standards are based on leading quality research. In the same position at a university, I would have expectations of departmental involvement, serving on committees, as well as a teaching load and possibly student extra curriculars (clubs, mentoring, and so forth) that take time away from research. Some of these activities are extremely valuable for both the faculty member and the university students (and to be completely honest, I miss a lot of these activities), but there are only 24 hours in a day, and time spent doing one thing necessarily means that your time can’t be spent doing something else. A government researcher generally does not wear quite so many hats. We are tasked with doing research, and unless we actively pursue community involvement related to our job duties, research is all we do.

No, the government can’t compete.

1. Generally speaking, the government doesn’t prioritize research. Yes, maybe the whole purpose of your agency is centered around scientific research, but make no mistake: the priority of the government itself is not to conduct research, but to serve the people. The role of government is, through either policies, jobs, or both, to provide a stabilizing force to society and make people’s lives better. Sometimes the central mission of government is accomplished through groundbreaking research (for example, USDA research on human nutrition), and other times the mission is actually at odds with it (perhaps USDA chooses to direct funds toward food assistance for low-income families and therefore must cut research budgets). Here’s a second example: during the government shutdown in October 2013, many researchers were prohibited from entering their labs to continue their ongoing research. It didn’t matter if you were in the middle of an experiment that had been running for months; unless your absence posed a safety hazard, your research stopped. Why? Couldn’t we have allowed scientists to come in to the lab during the shutdown anyway? Simply put, no- the priority during the shutdown was managing the country’s financial emergency, NOT managing the research results. Either way, whether research is the priority or not, government researchers must weather the storm, even when it means watching research results go down the drain.

2. The government has a talent problem. As civil servants, we’re not in it for the money. We take pride in the services we provide at the state, local, and federal level, because ultimately, we are out to do what I just mentioned: to make people’s lives better. Sometimes this mission is enough to attract good talent. But with federal employees facing pay freezes, shutdowns, and sequestration, neither the pay nor the morale are particularly attractive to someone looking to switch jobs. Often, the private sector pays much more for the same job. You may say, “Well, if that candidate is in it for the money, we don’t want him or her at our organization anyway.” And from a philosophical sense, you’d be right.

But the movers and shakers of the world are going to do the moving and shaking, whether it’s money-driven or mission-driven. And if those people are going to come up with groundbreaking ideas that change the world, I want them at my organization/agency/company when they do it! If government doesn’t offer an environment that nurtures their inner innovator, whether they feel stifled by the rules or by the pay, they are doing to do their innovating somewhere else. When this happens, the research ranks can be left entrenched in mediocrity, either with those who can’t find positions elsewhere or don’t feel so constrained by the infrastructure. So while employee turnover may be low, the research results eventually suffer.

While there are advantages and disadvantages to conducting research as a government agency, not only can agencies compete, but they very often do, and they excel to the point that projects such as the manned moon missions and the Manhattan Project have become awe-inspiring examples of what we can accomplish when we combine laser-focus with honest, hard work. Government research can be the gold standard for what’s possible- if we keep our priorities straight and nurture promising talent.

Erica Bakota is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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