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A focus on economic gain threatens funds for basic research

For decades, the Cold War was the indispensable pretext for national investments. The space program was just a race with the Russians. The National Defense Highway Act had nothing whatever to do with security, but the name allowed Congress to dodge a debate about whether government could make sound economic investments. Even improving education had to be camouflaged as the National Defense Education Act.

With the disappearance of the Cold War cover, some feared that the United States would be unable to make any long-term national investments. But a new mantra quickly emerged that Washington could embrace with even greater, uncritical enthusiasm: economic competitiveness.

Washington has become so mesmerized by the goal of securing a larger slice of the global economic pie for the United States that it has transformed an unarguable objective into policies that threaten equally important, non-economic national needs and future interests.

One of these is support for basic research. Among the reasons rich nations get richer is that they can afford to invest in basic science. When or where breakthroughs will come is unknowable, but that they will come, and return huge multiples of the investment, is a certainty.

All of a sudden, that's not enough. A Senate Appropriations subcommittee chaired by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., has decided that the National Science Foundation, the only federal agency created to pursue basic research, should instead devote at least 60 percent of its funds to "specific national goals" through something the committee calls, but never defines, "strategic research."

Though the committee is unable to do so, the Science Foundation is directed to "specifically define each area so as not to shroud curiosity driven activities under the rubric of strategic activities." If it doesn't, Congress threatens to shift Science Foundation money to mission agencies like NASA or the national energy labs that will "pursue critical technologies with entrepreneurial vigor."

Could Darwin or Mendel have set "annual, quantifiable, performance milestones"? Would Faraday discovering electricity or Curie discovering radioactivity have done better if their passionate drive for knowledge had been "entrepreneurial"? Should funders in 1960 have been able to predict that "curiosity driven" research on an obscure virus and its unremarkable bacterial host would lead, two decades later, to the hottest stocks on Wall Street, those of the new biotech companies?

The only kind of research that can be funded as the committee directs, of course, is not basic, but applied research. In a speech to quiet the uproar caused by the committee's report, Sen. Mikulski made that plain. Strategic research, she explained, is research focused on national goals like advanced manufacturing, biotechnology and high-performance computing. A better definition would be that it is the research that will produce 2025's equivalent of these technologies.

It is hard to imagine a more shortsighted plan than replacing much of the government's investment in pure knowledge with spending on "specific, immediate and realizable" gains, even if they do create "jobs in the construction and manufacturing sectors." Worse than fixing something that isn't broke, the committee would break something that stands among the United States' notable achievements, its system for identifying and supporting the best basic research.

Equally self-defeating in the long run is the present open season on export controls in favor of immediate sales and jobs. With the end of Cold War controls imminent, the timing could not be worse. American abandonment of export restraints is likely to result in a race with the Europeans to see who can sell the most the fastest.

The new conventional wisdom, as enunciated by Defense Secretary William Perry, is that it is "hopeless" to try to control dual-use technology, a category that includes everything from rockets (for use as commercial satellite launchers or nuclear-tipped missiles) to computers.

The evidence is to the contrary. Export controls have been a vital pillar of nonproliferation policy and have advanced other U.S. interests. They have bought time for countries such as Argentina and Brazil to think better of launching a nuclear competition, slowed weapons programs such as Iraq's and been an effective deterrent by raising the cost of illegal proliferation.

Controls are difficult to administer and politically fragile because there is always the argument that if we don't sell a particular technology, somebody else will. With persistence, however, the United States has been able to influence what others sell, to the benefit of global security. Some lost sales are the price of leadership, a price the United States can afford and should remain willing to pay.

Promoting business and jobs is one thing. Creating conditions that run counter to U.S. interests or that may require future taxpayer expenditures for weapons or military ventures should be another. Like maintaining steady support of basic science, the trick is to remember that the future matters.

Jessica Matthews is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Washington Post