One-nation arms race

March 14, 1996|By Daniel S. Greenberg

WASHINGTON -- In the annals of self- inflicted national injuries, a prominent place is secure for Washington's misguided values in spending scarce research money.

The latest figures show that the federal government currently devotes $37 billion, or about 53 percent, of its research funds to seeking better tools of war, and $12 billion, or 17 percent, on research aimed at preventing and treating disease. Even less is allocated to basic science, energy, agriculture and environmental tasks, according to the National Science Foundation, which tracks research spending.

There's something topsy-turvy in these choices, and it's bound to get worse. Long-term congressional budgeting plans call for a steady decline in civilian research spending, and increases for the Pentagon.

Meanwhile, industry which finances about two-thirds of the nation's research has become extremely timid in planning and spending for research. With Wall Street nervously on alert for corporate missteps, industry is showing less and less willingness to bet on the kind of laboratory long shots that set off economic booms in the past. Many of the central corporate laboratories that were once the glory of American innovation have been downsized or abandoned.

The volume of money for the Pentagon's research activities tops the rest of the world's combined military-research spending, and, in its bite on the federal budget, is little changed from the Cold War 1960s and 1970s. The military share has come down from the peaks of the Reagan arms buildup, when it took a 70 percent share of the federal research budget. But compared to what other countries are spending, it remains stratospheric.

While the United States is carrying on a one-nation arms race, most other major industrial nations shrewdly focus their research spending on civilian goals, with emphasis on the promotion of industry and the development of commercial products.

Japan's military establishment gets about 6 percent of the government's research budget. In Germany, the comparable figure is about 10 percent, and it's been declining for several years. Closest to the U.S. are Britain, with about 45 percent of government research funds assigned to defense, and France, about 35 percent. But economic stresses have induced both of those countries to reduce their military spending and shift resources to profit-making industrial research.

With industry taking a cautious approach to research, political arguments have been raging over whether the federal government can promote industrial technology. History shows that federal research money played beneficial, probably indispensable, roles in numerous technological developments, including the telegraph, railroads, aviation and the computer.

The marketplace test

The reigning congressional Republicans don't dispute that impressive track record, but they insist that in today's world the marketplace is the best judge of investment potential. Accordingly, they have been hacking away at federal programs aimed at stimulating the development of commercial technology.

One of the biggest of these, the Advanced Technology Program in the Department of Commerce, matches funds that industrial firms put up for research that private investors consider too risky. Ranging from electronics through biological products, it's risky research, but if a few of these projects produce commercially valuable breakthroughs, the costs will be repaid many times over. Now budgeted at $350 million for the support of some 200 projects, the program is slated for zero in congressional spending plans.

Meanwhile, kinder treatment awaits the Pentagon's research budget, a congressional favorite that benefits from the Clinton administration's fears of looking soft on military matters.

The Cold War is long gone, and no country or combination of countries comes close to the U.S. in sophistication of weaponry. With far less spending, that great lead could easily be maintained, and resources redeployed to technological innovation and improved productivity, the keys to faster economic growth.

Military research is increasingly irrelevant to the problems confronting the U.S. But, mired in the past and oblivious of today's realities, the budget-makers go their own way.

Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.

Pub Date: 3/14/96

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