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.