Should the Government Continue to Fund Research in Areas Where It Underperforms?

My last post explored the question: Is the government equipped to compete in scientific research? While we looked at both sides of the argument, perhaps the better answer is that things aren’t so black and white. Perhaps the answer lies in the shades of gray, that government is well-equipped for research in some areas and rather poorly equipped to compete in others. In the areas where we do well, let’s keep up the good work! However, in this precarious budget climate, the areas in which we don’t do well- in which we don’t (or can’t) excel- may face a more uncertain future. My question for you today is: should the government continue to fund research in areas in which it is underperforming?

No. At first glance, this may be the obvious answer. In private industry, if a division of a company doesn’t perform, that company may decide to cut the fat and eliminate that division. The entire purpose of establishing that division/department in the first place was to get research results in a desired area, and if the division isn’t producing, then it isn’t serving its purpose. However, this is generally not how it happens in the government sector. Even with objective and measurable performance objectives, these performance objectives are often either vague, or the bar is set so low that underperformers still proliferate. Just because an employee (or program or agency) is meeting its performance standards doesn’t necessarily mean that they are doing a good enough job to compete with non-government entities trying to accomplish the same thing.

Yes. Government should continue to fund research in fields where we aren’t the top dog. Why? Because our goals are different from those of academia and industry. Government is not in the business of making money; government is in the business of helping people. So while private industry may fund a drug study, for example, with the intent of marketing and selling a particular drug, government R & D has the freedom to explore solutions without a monetary end goal in mind. At least in theory, not being in the business of making money allows us an objectivity not found in other environments. Fundamentally, this is what research is all about: seeking the truth, regardless of the outcome. Of course, this doesn’t always work in practice either. Program administrators are now attempting to attach commercial requirements to government research programs, and some even discourage exploring scientific problems for their own sake. But up until recently, government-run labs have had the freedom to explore scientific problems without the constraints of commercialism.

Yes. What’s more is that the government will fund- or execute- research that no one else wants to do. Why should research be funded that no one else wants to do? Because even when the research isn’t glamorous, it might still solve fundamental problems facing our society. For example, we are facing an obesity crisis in America at the same time that health care costs are skyrocketing. Simply put, we’re getting fatter at a time when it costs more and more to deal with those very health consequences. We have a vague feeling that this has something to do with our nutrition but can’t really put our finger on the problem: are we eating too much sugar? Too much fat? Not enough protein? The right kinds of fat? Luckily the Department of Agriculture has a multitude of programs that, while not always glamorous, address this problem. USDA is involved in studying everything from school lunch choices to the chemistry of making healthier vegetable oils. Sure, the chemistry of vegetable oil isn’t nearly as sexy as rocket science or weapons of mass destruction, but the return-on-investment at the population level may be just as great, if not greater, in the long run.

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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Mark Hammer

Forty years ago, one of my profs, who happened to live in Cambridge MA, but taught at McGill and flew in on his private plane, walked into class with a suitcase. He said “You know, XXX is a discipline where you need hands-on research experience, and at the undergraduate level, you don’t get nearly enough of that. So what we’re going to do today is simulate research experience.”

And with that, he plunked the suitcase on the table in front of him, and said “I have every single paper ever published on a particular area of research, in here. I’m going to tell you what the very first published paper observed, and you’re going to tell me what we should do next. I’ll have that study in here, somewhere, tell you what was found, and then you’ll tell me what we should do next.”

Over the next 90 minutes, we simulated nearly 15 years’ worth of research experience, and when we left class, our hair was matted to our foreheads from the sweat.

One of the great lessons I learned from that (and has not been refuted or contradicted by anything in the intervening 40 years) was that you can’t always tell what’s going to pay off, when it comes to research. Stuff that looks like a “sure thing”, and obvious place to invest your energy and money, ends up turning into a blind alley that grinds to a halt and goes nowhere for a while. And other stuff that looks ephemeral, and a waste of everyone’s time, ends up unlocking the door at the end of the blind alley from the other side, and allowing the initial path to continue even more productively.

Unfortunately, it is as difficult to identify either of these at the outset, as it is to predict Olympic medalists from their baby pictures.

“Underperforming” is an attribute of now. Research is an activity intended to go beyond the now and into the future. It is intended to solve problems you don’t even know you have yet.

So, while it is eminently sensible to assume that one can’t fund everything, and choices have to be made at some point, what sorts of criteria would we use to differentiate between the “underperforming” and “performing” domains of research? How do we stop ourselves from becoming too short-sighted?

Dannielle Blumenthal

This is such an important question Erica. Thanks for writing about it. I always think about the Drudge Report linking to some story about the NSF funding research into “shrimp on a treadmill” (don’t ask me what that’s all about) as an example of wasteful spending. And then the coverage on Fox News having to do with funding the National Endowment for the Arts (this one was something to do with “romance novels” as I recall). As a libertarian I always find myself questioning why the government should fund anything outside the very narrow scope of keeping society working.

But then, to Mark’s point, sometimes it is only the government that has the bandwidth, funding and muscle to take on big and important innovation projects (and other projects that make a society worth living in – yes, culture is one of them and yes, romance novels are culture.)

The government, academia, nonprofits and the private sector can do so much together. The Internet. Medicine. Foreign assistance (smart electricity, hygienic toileting, safe affordable birth control for minors). Education – tablet computers for all. Public transportation, green power. All of it. We can do it. It takes time and patience.

But not infinite patience. McKinsey just released research showing that high performing companies reallocate their innovation investments whereas lower performers coast or panic-invest.

Fast Company also had an article about Google X, and how there is tolerance for failure, but it has to be explained and dealt with.