Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Who Should Decide How to Allocate Science Funding?

Jason E. Summers


May 31, 2013

By Jason E. Summers

This article is the second installment in a three-part series.

In the first installment of this series, I argued that legislative controls on the allocation of the $7 billion National Science Foundation (NSF) budget (such as those passed in Senator Tom Coburn’s (R-OK) amendment to the 2013 NSF appropriation bill and those proposed by Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) in a draft copy of the High Quality Research Act) support a populist appeal that federally funded science “directly benefit the American people,” thus undermining a robust devolutionary system of funding allocation.

In the following two installments, I will outline a principled case against the type of oversight proposed in the High Quality Research Act. I consider here a right role for government funding of scientific research (distinct from defense research) and, in the final installment, which institutions are responsible for ensuring that the allocation of funding serves this role.

The High Quality Research Act does not espouse a normative view of the purpose of government science funding, but it does give a set of discriminative criteria for evaluating whether science should be government-funded. Specifically, it argues that government-funded science should serve national goals by improving “health, prosperity, or welfare” and securing national defense. Moreover, the draft bill insists on a careful application of a particular calculus such that government funding is allocated only to science that “answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large.” Depending on whether the criteria are necessary or sufficient and if they are interpreted broadly or literally, they may be met by the existing NSF peer-review process, or may be impossible to meet. Both alternatives call in to question the need for the proposed law.

In science policy, one common theory of funding allocation contrasts utilitarian goals of improving wellbeing with monumental goals of achieving fundamental understanding. Some work, such as the Human Genome Project or the Manhattan Project, achieves both ends. But individual research efforts typically achieve only one of these ends, and often not the end planned for (e.g., a practical investigation fails, but reveals new fundamental knowledge).

Another common theory of funding allocation contrasts basic research with technology development, the former being most suitable for government funding, the latter being most suitable for market funding. Basic science is what economists term a public good, being both nonrivalrous (use by one individual does not reduce availability for others) and nonexcludable (access to it cannot be limited). Moreover, investment in basic science often realizes returns only after many years and it consequently cannot be supported by a market system. In contrast, technology development, serving immediate ends, can be supported by market returns and therefore is less appropriate for government support (which tends to distort the market).

While there is some relation between basic research and monumental goals and technology development and utilitarian goals, the categories are distinct and all possible permutations exist in practice. All are necessary components of the scientific enterprise and are well-justified within a Christian framework both on the ground of serving the common good, and in fulfilling a creational mandate for the contemplation of the created order.

Critics of the proposals outlined in the High Quality Research Act fear it will quash monumental goals and basic research in favor of technology development that achieves clear and immediate goals. Rep. Smith has defended criticisms of his proposal arguing that it is intended to “support basic research, which can lead to discoveries that change our world, expand our horizons, and change lives.” As an example, he suggests that NSF should “prioritize research projects like the brain mapping initiative that may help cure Alzheimer’s, autism, epilepsy, and brain injuries.” This purely utilitarian approach to the justification of basic research suffers from being unable to predict the future and guarantee the desired outcome.

When allocating science funding based on what research will best serve specific national goals, the best course of action can’t be determined a priori with perfect confidence. Much less is it possible to ensure that all research proposals will result in work that will meet the mandated requirements of being “finest quality” and “ground breaking.” By definition, such work is rare and inherently impossible for all awards to achieve. Indeed, science benefits largely from research that is correct and thorough and advances or confirms prior work.

While it is my view that both monumental and utilitarian goals have a place in government science funding, if government-support of basic research is to be justified on the utilitarian grounds that Smith and Coburn favor, it must cast a wide net, allow for cross-disciplinary spread of practical innovation (e.g., from theoretical quantum mechanics to secure military communications), and support redundancy of efforts to account for the inherent uncertainty of the process. The High Quality Research Act codifies a misunderstanding of the scientific process that specifically disallows for this requisite “uncertainty funnel” in the allocation of funding. 

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist of Applied Research in Acoustics LLC. The views expressed here are those of the author alone. Neither he nor his firm have current or pending awards with NSF.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”