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

Military Research Funding in an Era of Austerity

Jason E. Summers


August 19, 2011
by Jason E. Summers

Provisions of the debt-ceiling deal ensure that the Department of Defense (DoD) budget will see reductions of $350 billion (relative to baseline growth) over the next ten years and an additional $600 billion in automatic reductions if the bipartisan super committee cannot agree on an additional $1.5 trillion in savings from across the government over 10 years. Research and development (R&D) expenditures, which make up almost 15 percent of the DoD budget, will be a significant component of these reductions. Already Michael E. O'Hanlon and Peter W. Singer have expressed concerns over potential cuts to defense R&D spending, which is “proportionally more important than other parts of the defense budget” but often targeted for cuts.

Though DoD is the largest federal supporter of R&D, most funding is allocated to systems engineering—the integration of existing technologies into defined systems—rather than scientific research or the development of new technologies. Of the $529 billion annual DoD budget, $78 billion will go to R&D, most of which is allocated to a large umbrella account, Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E). RDT&E is divided into seven separate accounts, ranging from Basic Research (6.1) to Operational System Development (6.7). System development (6.4-6.7) accounts for an overwhelming majority of defense R&D spending—86 percent.  The annual budget for the remaining accounts (6.1-6.3, Science and Technology (S&T) spending) is $12.4 billion, just over half of which is allocated to basic and applied research (6.1 and 6.2). For perspective, at $6.4 billion, this is roughly $1 billion more than the National Science Foundation budget, and about $1.5 billion more than the National Institutes of Health budget spends on cancer alone.

Negotiations over the R&D budget should adopt neither of the two rhetorical approaches dominant in the current debate over defense spending. The first, exemplified by Fareed Zakaria, evaluates spending as a percentage of GDP. The second, exemplified more recently by Zakaria in a Washington Post Op-Ed column, evaluates absolute expenditures. Both place “numbers before strategy.” Instead, negotiators must determine the objectives for R&D funding.  Funding should then be strategically prioritized based on these objectives.

First, DoD R&D should ensure the military satisfies what the Center for Public Justice Guideline on Security & Defense establishes as its primary responsibility: to maintain capabilities and readiness necessary to protect life and property against foreign aggression. In so doing, development of military capabilities should be constrained by provisions of just-war doctrine—neither all systems nor levels of military buildup are justified.  Expenditures must also provide support necessary to maintain this capability for future generations. This is achieved largely through basic and applied research (DoD 6.1-6.2 funding), which serves to support innovation and maintain expertise in academic fields of significance to DoD interests.

Cuts to system-development research (6.4-6.7) should target specific systems based on their strategic significance for achieving military capability and readiness as well as on the overall efficiency and efficacy of their development program. However, such targeted cuts are rarely achieved, as O'Hanlon and Singer note, because political expedience favors apportioning cuts uniformly to all programs. This approach, while attempting to reduce waste, harms effective programs, and thus fails to serve public justice.

Reflecting conclusions from a seminal 1964 review of military procurement, S&T expenditures—including basic and applied research—have also been directed toward areas of strategic interest. But making targeted cuts to S&T programs is more problematic. Congress typically lacks expertise to evaluate programs at the level of detail necessary to make surgical cuts. Moreover, cuts risk long-range consequences. In their recent report the American Association for the Advancement of Science notes that the DoD “supports almost one-third of all federal research in the computer sciences and a similar proportion of all engineering research,” setting the agenda for many scientific disciplines. Therefore, in addition to a short-term reduction in research output in specific areas, reduced S&T funding may result in a long-term reduction of the supply of scientists and engineers in these fields.

Even though it is a small portion of the DoD budget, basic and applied research cannot be sacrosanct, provided that reductions account for the unique role S&T funding plays. It provides a public good by supporting research in fields of strategic importance that lack private-sector applications. Likewise, by affording a longer time horizon, it provides a public good by bearing the short-term risk associated with basic research. Cuts which maintain these public goods can be a small, but appropriate, component of overall austerity measures.

Jason E. Summers is Chief Scientist of Applied Research in Acoustics LLC. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.



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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.”