Declining Basic Science in the US

Having been a student in the US for some time now, one constantly gets the feeling that US basic science research is in decline. This is expressed somewhat satirically (you can read the passage here) by PW Anderson in More and Different: Notes from a Thoughtful Curmudgeon.

More seriously, this is expressed concretely in the recently released MIT report called (pdf link!)  The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a US Innovation Deficit. Since the report is long, it is summarized in a Physics Today article that is worth reading.

The Physics Today article provides a link to the plot below. It is a plot of government spending on research and development as a percentage of the federal budget in the years between 1961-2015. It shows a seeming decline in R&D spending:

The Physics Today article did not, however, link the plot below, which provides more context. It is a plot of total nondefense R&D spending per year adjusted for inflation.

More interesting plots here.

There are a few standout features in this plot. One is the dramatic increase in funding for health related sciences. Another is the staggering amount of money spent in the 1960s on space-related sciences during the height of the Cold War Space Race. The most important point of this plot, though, is that when adjusted for inflation, the amount of money spent on science by the federal government has increased over time.

So why does the MIT report lament the lack of money for basic research?

This is my perspective: I agree with the overall premise of the report that basic science innovations are slowing in the US compared with other countries. I don’t agree, however, that it is because of a lack of federal funding. What is missing from both plots above, is the amount of basic science research undertaken in the private sector.

The disappearance of funding (which was not federal) for industrial research facilities such as Bell Labs, IBM Research, Xerox PARC, and General Electric Research Laboratories has been extremely detrimental. In these facilities, scientists were able to work without having to worry about funding, teaching, training the next generation of scientists and other university-related commitments. Moreover, the basic research at these facilities was often conducted with a long-term goal in mind, and taking a tortuous route (even if it took many years) to a solution was acceptable.

These industrial facilities have been replaced with increased funding at universities and at national laboratories such as Argonne National Laboratory. However, it is not clear whether entities such as these, which still require federal spending on basic science research can match the productivity of its industrial predecessors. At Bell Labs, there was more time, more money and fewer commitments for the employed scientists, as detailed in the great book Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. (That national labs cannot match industry standards is arguable though, and it should be said that the merits of national laboratories far outweigh the negatives.)

Ultimately, in my opinion, the lack of government spending is not the main inadequacy — there is a need for structural reform. Today in the US, much of basic science research is conducted at universities where professors offload most of the scientific legwork to graduate students to train them as future scientists. Professors are rarely working with each other in laboratories in the way that used to occur with the scientists at Bell. This is a major difference.

The lack of industrial facilities in the US undertaking basic science research (at least in physics) compared to years prior is, in my opinion, one of the major reasons for the decline in US innovation on this front. Throwing more money at the problem may not fix systemic flaws.

That being said, it’s not all bad. Companies like SpaceX, Tesla, Google, Apple and Intel are all doing great things for the American economy and applied sciences. The US federal government needs to figure out a method, though, to further incentivize these companies, that have the capability, to create large scale industrial laboratories (such as GoogleX and Tesla’s Gigafactory). This will spur long-term progress that will leave a mark on the next generation’s technological landscape.

3 responses to “Declining Basic Science in the US

  1. I have often heard the decline of industrial physics research bemoaned, but do you know how significant the facilities in question actually were? Sure, Bell Labs minted a number of Nobels and had a large staff—but wasn’t it approximately equivalent to a single top-flight physics department, say like the one at MIT? And how many institutions of Bell Labs’ caliber were there?

    Put differently, if one added industrial funding to the second plot you show, would it change the picture appreciably?


  2. Pingback: Social and Moral Responsibility of a Scientist | This Condensed Life

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