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Any allocation of the federal budget should be made with respect to efficiency, affecting the broadest number of citizens, and accomplishing an inherently public good. This would be even more important when allocating a final $100 million dollars to any agency or level of government. First, the decision of what level of government should receive the funding is simple. The money should be allocated to serve the nation broadly rather than a single state or locality. A lower level of government could fully fund a program of some kind, but that does not create the greatest good.
The $100 million should go towards research and development into nine distinct areas that are at the edge of commercial and community need. Instead of direct grants or funding research at national labs, the $100 million will be broken out into nine, $10 million prizes, similar to the X prize competitions. The remaining $10 million would be earmarked for administrative purposes such as advertising the prizes, testing of the submissions, and hiring of experts to judge the entries. The nine areas for research should be spread across the agencies and departments including Energy, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Transportation. Each of these agencies has broad research arms that can determine how the prizes should be directed. In addition, their overlapping priorities can be leveraged to create some prizes that affect multiple sectors and employ interdisciplinary solutions to the problems posed.
The prizes will please both sides of the political spectrum by promoting and rewarding private businesses while creating public good with government funds. The investment of individual entrepreneurs and large and small companies will create a substantial return for the economy on the small initial investment. For instance, the Ansari X Prize resulted in $100 million spent to win the prize between the teams and over $1.5 billion in private and public investment in the private spaceflight industry. The potentially massive economic effect of government investment in research and development is displayed in Science Progress’s analysis of data from a May 2011 Battelle study. This study showed a 14,000% return on investment for the Human Genome Project, and a 1,250% return on tax revenue alone over its lifetime. This process could also be used as a way to reengage and generate a national interest in scientific advancement to rival the early days of NASA. This is already a national priority and would present an added benefit to increase support and interest in the federal government in general.
There are many worthwhile government funded projects, but these research and development prizes would be the best use of the remaining $100 million. They create a positive economic and social effect, provide the opportunity for large-scale technological advancement, and put scientific effort and discovery at the forefront of the national consciousness.
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