A substantial part of my job description now is to ask the governement (and private enterprise, for that matter) for money. Just this week, I submitted my first grant proposal as the PI (Principal Investigator, the person who is ultimately answerable to the government for the performance of the grant if awarded). We (myself and two collegues) asked the National Science Foundation for the better part of a million dollars over the course of three years.
Certain readers of this blog, who shall remain nameless, may think that funding research is not a good use of their tax dollars. (Or rather, think that the government should eliminate the NSF and a bevy of other federal agencies in an effort to cut taxes further.) I want to make the case here that federal funding of research, especially in technology, is more critical than ever.
During the recent economic downturn, corporate research has largely disappeared. Many once great research labs, like Bell Labs, are shells of their former selves. In an age of living from quarter to quarter, companies feel that they cannot afford to invest in work where the payoff may be 5, 10, or more years down the road. Except for a few exceptions, the research which remains is mostly what I would classify as “advanced development.” That is, it is focused on creating ideas for a product going to market in 2-3 years or less.
Real research, though, does not have such a quick payoff. Fundamental research affects the products which will come to market 5-10 years (or more) from now. What’s more, given a hundred lines of research inquiry, no one can predict which one might lead to the next big thing. If we knew what was going to work, then it wouldn’t be research.
The American economy is largely based on innovation. The Japanese are better at efficiency; the Germans are better at precision. Much computer programming, once innovative, has become routine, and now other countries are eating our lunch (e.g. India). In America, innovation is what we have to distinguish ourselves. Fundamental, groundbreaking research is the engine which propels the innovation ship. You can stop the engine, and the ship will keep going – maybe even for many years – but eventually, the unpowered ship will drift to a stop.
A primary role of the government, in my view, is to pay for things that the people want and need which private enterprise cannot or will not provide. This includes public goods such as national defense, roads, and parks. I claim, though, that it also includes fundamental research.