Spending on science has been, should always be an investment for government

Spending on science has been, should always be an investment for government


Much like Otto von Bismarck and other nation-builders in Germany, Tsar Alexander II was eager to bolster industrial development throughout his country. Central to those efforts was investing heavily in precision metrology. The tsar found eager and skilful natural scientists such as Mendeleev to help.

In the same decade, Japan underwent enormous changes, too. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 marked a period of opening up for the formerly isolated country. The emperor’s Charter Oath proclaimed that: “Knowledge shall be sought all over the world, and thereby the foundations of imperial rule shall be strengthened.”

The government began investing in manufacturing and other industrial reforms. It instituted new public schools and funded fellowships to send students abroad to study advances in science. The central government brought senior scientists from other countries – such as Britain and the United States – to Japan to build up training in state-funded facilities.

Here, too, leaders began to prioritise government-sponsored research institutions as part of the modern state-building effort.

The United States remained a stubborn outlier. The timing was far from promising for new investment. The bloodiest conflict in US history sputtered to an end in 1865, punctuated by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. (More US soldiers died during the civil war of 1861-65 than during the First and Second World Wars and the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq combined.)

Support for scientific research and institutions at the federal level remained scarce until the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed, several leading policymakers were scandalised by the nation’s comparative lack of scientific and technical preparation during the First World War.

Efforts by reformers in the United States to shore up government support for research was stymied by the long-standing US tradition that education should remain the province of state and local authorities, rather than the federal government.

Across the United States, individual colleges and universities gradually placed greater emphasis on original research and built-up infrastructure for laboratories.

But the impact remained uneven at best. As late as 1927, when the young physicist Isidor Rabi travelled to Germany to study quantum theory, he found that university libraries tended to order one full year’s worth of US journal the Physical Review at a time.

There seemed to be no reason to receive copies with any greater frequency, given their undistinguished contents. Science was even largely ignored in the grips of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the federal government centralized so many other things under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Only in the early 1940s, amid emergency wartime mobilisation, did the US federal government undertake large-scale support for research and development. Radar, nuclear weapons, the proximity fuse and dozens of other military projects required billions of dollars and close coordination between abstract studies and practical development.

The effectiveness of the wartime arrangements impressed politicians, military planners and university administrators alike. When peace came, they scrambled to build a new infrastructure that could maintain the war-forged relationships. Budgets across the physical sciences and engineering in the United States continued to rise thereafter, sourced almost entirely from the federal government. In 1949, 96 per cent of all funding in the United States for basic research in the physical sciences came from defence-related federal agencies.

By 1954 – four years after the founding of the civilian US National Science Foundation – that proportion had risen to 98 per cent.

Thereafter, policymakers in the United States found new reasons to support research: it helped to meet domestic goals for industrial development and military defence and was a key element in international relations. Federal investment in scientific institutions across war-ravaged Europe – so the thinking went – might fend off scientists’ flirtations with communism in countries such as France, Italy and Greece.

Major reforms of the Japanese university system under US occupation after the Second World War likewise helped to spread the US model. Spending on science became an investment in hearts and minds.

In the United States, the steady federal investment drove an unprecedented growth in scientific research and infrastructure. More young people were trained in the natural sciences during the 25 years after the end of the Second World War than had been trained in total throughout all of previous human history.

The US government developed a national laboratory system and supported a broad spectrum of research at universities, most of it with little direct connection to military projects. The expenditures were often justified in terms of broader ‘preparedness’: creating a large pool of trained personnel who would be available to work on focused military projects should the cold war ever turn hot.

In the meantime, enterprising scientists made use of opportunities that came from close ties to military sponsors. US Navy concerns about submarine warfare drove intense exploration of the ocean floor. Geoscientists, capitalising on new data and instruments, found compelling evidence for plate tectonics. Similarly, physicists consulting on classified missile-defence projects spurred the development of new areas of study, such as non-linear optics.

That ‘new normal’ held for about a quarter of a century. Just as Nature marked its 100th anniversary in 1969, military auditors in the United States released a lengthy analysis, dubbed Project Hindsight. It argued that the federal defence agencies had received a poor return on their investment in open-ended science.

That year, Democratic Senator Michael Mansfield (Montana) – who would soon become the longest-serving majority leader of the senate in US history – introduced a last-minute amendment to the federal Military Authorisation Act of 1970. It stipulated that no funds from the Department of Defence could be used “to carry out any research project or study” that did not have “a direct and apparent relationship to a specific military function”.

On university campuses across the country, debate over the government’s role in supporting scientific research became even more raucous. Amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, scientists and students grappled with the proper place of defence spending in higher education.

At Columbia University in New York City and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, radicals targeted military-funded research laboratories with explosives. On many other campuses, police resorted to tear gas and billy clubs to disperse angry protesters.

During the 1970s and 1980s, scientists forged partnerships with private industries as well as philanthropies. These relationships were accelerated by steep cuts in federal spending on defence and education in the United States and in many other parts of the world.

Biotechnology and nanotechnology emerged in those years, buoyed by systems of support that were different from the government spending that had underwritten research in nuclear physics after the Second World War.

Recent, hybrid patterns of support still depend heavily on central-government funding – just consider how closely scientists follow each year’s appropriation cycle in the US Congress and elsewhere. But support for research today is rarely sustained by the kind of saturation model that had seemed so natural early in the nuclear age.

Fewer than 20 countries currently invest more than two per cent of their gross domestic product in research and development, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Bank.

In several of those countries, meanwhile, the nature of government support has shifted, often prioritizing projects with short-term goals and practical applications over longer-scale inquiries.

When Lockyer was sending the first issue of Nature off to press, many elements of the modern scientific enterprise were being forged across Britain, the European continent and parts of Asia. But to fully grasp the range of monetary relationships that scientists now navigate – scouring today’s equivalents of the Venetian senate for funds, while courting private donors in Kavli Institutes and Simons Foundation centres that are no less sparkling than a Medici palace — we would do well to keep Galileo in mind.

  • A Nature report
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