Science Funding, looking to the past and changing the future.

At the end of the Second World War a ground-breaking report entitled Science: The Endless Frontier was authored by Vannevar Bush, at the request of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt asked that Bush, his science advisor, compile the report detailing how the great scientific developments from the war could be made public for civilian use. Bush’s recommendations, based on the findings of various specialised committees, changed the way that science research and development progressed in the US.

At the core of the report was the idea that, in order to continue making great advances in science and technology, the government needed to massively improve funding into research and education in these sectors.  Alongside numerous federally-funded programs for science education and development, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health were established as a result of Bush’s work. Collaborations between these government-backed programs and civilian institutions, such as universities, led to remarkable advances in US scientific developments. Projects initially funded by defence spending were pushed to find civilian applications; the moon landing and the internet are examples of some of the great achievements that resulted from this post-war era of science-based industrial policy.

Partnerships between the government, businesses, academic institutions and venture capital were what made this growth in US scientific innovation possible. The developments that led from this government-funded collaboration were not limited to the US; the internet began its life as a defence-funded project, but due to its release as free-to-use technology, grew and expanded rapidly as a result of research from numerous companies and academic institutions worldwide. The global spread of this technology from the US resulted in the invention of the World Wide Web which, together with the internet, revolutionised the way that the world communicates and the way that information is stored and accessed, making vast amounts available for public consumption virtually free of charge.

The long term effects of federal science funding have a huge impact on a country’s economy and its citizens’ standard of living.  The information technology sector alone contributes 1 trillion dollars every year to the US GDP. Federal funding and open access has led to breakthroughs in healthcare science that not only save lives, but also healthcare-associated costs, which can then be invested in future research.

In more recent years, the focus throughout the world has shifted towards the immediate economic benefits which result from the creation of intellectual property rights on publically funded research. For example, the founders of Google were funded by the National Science Foundation, yet they published their results privately and profited massively as a result. Property rights and patents can be a valuable tool in the science industry, providing protection and financial motivations for research.  However, they can also prevent the free exchange of ideas and information between scientists, thus impeding new discoveries and the overall benefit to society.  This approach also does not encourage long-term, less applied research on which the science industry relies.

Alongside the increase in focus on intellectual property laws and short-term wealth creation, there has been a reduction in federal funding into scientific research in both the US, and many other countries. This not only creates an immediate brain drain in the public sector but, if the long term economic benefits of scientific innovation are taken into account, can have long-lasting effects on a country’s economy and standard of living.

The author submits that we must look beyond the short-term personalised wealth accumulated as a result of protecting intellectual property and underfunded science sectors, and instead focus on the long-term economic and societal gain which results from freely accessible, government- backed scientific innovation.  

Written by Megan Bridgeland, August 2018