Four billion dollars. A mammoth sum. But it’s not enough. Most of us have little concept of a billion, or even a million for that matter. It’s difficult to imagine having a million dollars to spend—to get to a billion you have to multiply that by one thousand. Simple math, but yielding numbers so far beyond individual budgets that comprehension is difficult. The situation is different for the federal government, however, which operates on a multi-TRILLION dollar scale.
Four billion dollars is the amount of federal funds for research and development (R&D) that are spent every year in Texas. It’s enough to rank us fifth among the states (plus DC and Puerto Rico). It pays for research of tremendous value. Key federal agencies involved in the process include NASA, the Department of Defense (DoD), Health and Human Services, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, and the US Department of Agriculture. NASA and the DoD combined account for some 78% of the spending.
Where does the money go? To pay for research into water quality and the effects of pollution, floods, and droughts. A host of agriculture-related research facilities study crops, irrigation, livestock, wildlife, endangered species, bird migration, and other topics. DoD pays out some $1.4 billion to fund development of new weapons and aircraft and otherwise enhance the capabilities of the military. NASA conducts space-related research, of course, but also works on uses of technologies originating in the space program in other contexts such as human heart pumps and cancer studies.
In addition to these research facilities, Texas’ higher education institutions are sites for additional activity. Every major university receives federal funds for research. Approximately $661 million is funneled to the colleges and universities in the state.
What’s the benefit? These are the dollars that pay for “basic research.” Unlike corporate R&D, which typically has to show a direct relationship to gains for the corporate bottom line, basic research can be far more creative. It’s this basic research which can ultimately lead to the largest social gains in the long run.
A quick side note on that topic. There have been some moves recently toward the expectation of a specific payoff on a scheduled basis for federal research dollars. Without an appropriate rate of return, the argument goes, R&D money should not be spent. The problem with this idea is that the most creative research is often the most difficult to adequately quantify in terms of the payoff. What is the value to society of finding a cure for a deadly disease? While we don’t want taxpayer dollars to pay for researchers to take what amounts to a permanent, posh vacation generating essentially nothing of value, we have to be careful of going too far the other way. If a measurable rate of return becomes the prevailing standard for awarding research grants, we run the risk of choking off the most potentially rewarding projects. But enough time on that soapbox for now.
So why do I say the $4 billion is not enough? Because given the size of our Texas population and economy, we should be getting even more. Texas boasts some of the best and brightest minds in the country. We have the higher education infrastructure to support far more research than is currently channeled our way. As the second largest state (behind California) on almost every meaningful measure, we should not rank fifth in research funding. This is an area with huge potential gains, not only for the people of Texas, but also for the people of the world. Exploring ways to attract additional federal research dollars to the Lone Star State makes sense from many perspectives.
The laboratories of the world contribute new discoveries which improve productivity, healthcare, and indeed our understanding of the universe. These endeavors have long been subsidized on a massive scale by public funds. This commitment reflects our collective belief that (1) basic science has overall benefits that exceed private gains, and (2) successful research often requires high-risk experimentation, uncertain outcomes, and the freedom to fail—characteristics not easily accommodated in the market. Basic science is in many ways a laboratory of our natural and physical worlds, opening the way to greater social achievement, enhanced quality of life, and sustainable economic prosperity.