Science Scope

Will defense budget cuts hurt science and innovation?

Posting in Energy

The Internet. Jet engines. Satellite navigation. We could see fewer of these kinds of innovations with the coming shrinkage of the military budget.

The Internet. Jet engines. Satellite navigation.

Throughout American history, scientific and technological innovations that have become the fabric of our lives have had an unlikely origin: military research.

But now, the Defense Department's budget may be cut by up to 10% over the next decade, putting into question the impact on innovation -- and by extension, the economy's long-term growth.

Military research's impact on innovation

To put into context the way defense research connects to innovation and the economy, take this example from The New York Times:

The Navy, which started budgeting for research in 1946, counts 59 eventual Nobel laureates among the recipients of its financing, including Charles H. Townes, whose pioneering work in the development of lasers laid the groundwork for compact discs and laser eye surgery.

One reason for this success is that, of all the government agencies that fund research, it is the main user of those innovations. For instance, the Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health both fund research, but they don't then also consume lots of energy or healthcare. However, the Pentagon will not only back research and development, it will then also buy weapons, equipment and technology.

“The central thing that distinguishes them from other agencies is that they are the customer,” Professor Daniel Sarewitz, director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, told the Times. “You can’t pull the wool over their eyes.”

Could private research pick up the slack?

It remains to be seen how much less money will be going toward military R&D. In the last fiscal year, the Pentagon spent 12% of its budget on that arena, or $81.4 billion, which accounted for more than half of all federal spending on R&D.

Historically, R&D has always been somewhere between 9 and 13% of the Pentagon budget. R&D will likely be reduced in proportion to the rest of the budget though there still is the possibility that the research budget will be spared when the actual cuts are made.

While there is hand-wringing over the defense cuts and their impact on science, private R&D spending could take up the slack. In fact, in or slightly before 1990, private funding began to exceed government spending in this area, and by 2007, the private sector was spending twice as much on research as the government.

As a result, the military has been backing only the most promising ideas, but the Times reports, "a 2009 report by an advisory panel of independent scientists concluded that the shift was reducing the chances for the transformative discoveries that once emerged with remarkable regularity."

“In the present program, evolutionary advances are the norm, and revolutions are less likely to be fostered than they should be,” the report said. The Pentagon “is getting what it asks for in tightly managed and focused research programs, but is reducing the potential for true breakthroughs.”

What do you think? Will military budget cuts have an adverse affect on innovation, or will private research be sufficient to offset those cuts?

via: The New York Times

photo: The Pentagon (David B. Gleason/Wikimedia)

Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure