America Doesn’t Prioritize Scientific Research Unless It’s for the MilitaryPhoto by Mark Wilson/Getty Science Features Scientific Funding
Donald Trump’s latest budget is newsworthy for many reasons, but there was one detail swept under the rug—likely because it is an extension of the status quo. It cuts nondefense discretionary spending by $54 billion in 2018, and by 2% each year for the next decade. This is a continuation of a trend that began in the late 1970s. Cutting through the political mumbo jumbo, “nondefense discretionary spending” is government expenditures on basically everything that does not have to do with the military, Social Security and Medicare. For example: in 2015, nondefense discretionary spending comprised roughly 18% of the total federal budget, including areas like health care research, transportation, education, science, environment and energy. Social Security and unemployment benefits alone accounted for almost double that figure.
One of the hallmarks of every major civilization in human history is the prioritization of scientific development. Societal progress is inherently tied to our scientific ability to engineer ways to improve our collective lives. The decline of the United States’ international standing can almost be charted in tandem with our abandonment of scientific research. This chart provides a clear picture of where research and development stand as a federal priority. Nondefense R&D doesn’t even comprise a measly 2% of the federal budget. Now, contrast that with basic research funding for DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Products Agency).
Data taken from DARPA.mil/about-us/budget
DARPA is responsible for some of the most impactful innovations known to mankind. Initially called ARPA, it was created by Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1958 in response to the Russians launching the Sputnik satellite, as they became the first nation to venture into space. It was created to work on moonshot-type projects that did not have an immediate military application. Cutting edge technology like the internet and GPS were born in its hallowed halls.
Around the end of the 1970s, America began to sour on the Vietnam War. As televisions invaded more homes, people became confronted with the harsh reality of our ugly war of choice. In 1970, the Senate Majority Leader—Mike Mansfield—introduced an amendment to scale the entire war back, and included a provision that prohibited the military from funding any research that did not have a direct application to warfare. In 1972, ARPA’s focus changed to concentrate on more immediately applicable military projects, and “defense” was tacked on to its name, officially renaming it DARPA. The expectation was that the National Science Foundation (NSF) would make up the difference in funding, but it never did.
Even the NSF was borne out of warfare. During World War II, President Roosevelt wrote a letter to Dr. Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, stating that:
There is, however, no reason why the lessons to be found in this experiment cannot be profitably employed in times of peace. The information, the techniques, and the research experience developed by the Office of Scientific Research and Development and by the thousands of scientists in the universities and in private industry, should be used in the days of peace ahead for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living.
By 1947, Congress passed a bill creating the NSF, but Harry Truman vetoed it because it did not allow him to pick the head of the agency. After three years of bargaining, the NSF was established in 1950. By March of the following year, Truman appointed Alan T. Waterman, chief scientist at the Office of Naval Research as the first head of the agency. Even the NSF, which was created explicitly to conduct scientific research outside of any specific military application, cannot escape its connections to the military.
Funding for the NSF and similar R&D programs has been on the decline since the end of the Vietnam War, while DARPA and other military-centric scientific research has been on the rise. Simply put, our government values scientific innovation mainly when it can be used to hurt someone else. That’s not to declare all of DARPA’s creations as violent—and some like the internet have irrevocably changed mankind for the better—but it says something about us as a culture when our best hope for scientific progress coincides with that progress’ ability to blow stuff up.
DARPA’s funding for research flatlined during the Iraq War—as resources had to be deployed towards utilizing those findings towards their natural ends—but they skyrocketed the second that Barack Obama entered office. Obama won the presidency due in large part to his aversion to George W. Bush’s war of choice, but his budgets helped set the stage for a future president—say one with thin orange skin and a bad Twitter habit—to deploy our scientific progress against another mostly innocent civilian population. He could have also laid the groundwork for a future internet-type moonshot, or even perhaps both. Only time will tell. This is the bed we have made for ourselves.
For the first time in the post-WWII era, the federal government does not fund a majority of the basic research done in the United States, and Trump’s new budget accelerates that trend. The one positive from that figure is that corporations are investing more in research and development, although much of that growth is driven by pharmaceutical companies—so it remains to be seen if this scientific private sector progress will result in an increase in the standard of living, or another round of medications that seem to have worse side effects than the ailment they are designed to treat. That our government has almost never been able to prioritize science for the sake of science, or even basic societal development is disturbing, and the fact that the buffoon currently residing in the Oval Office seeks to expedite that lack of progress is a harbinger of the dark direction America is headed.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer at Paste. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.