Federal R&D Funding

January 6, 2017

The federal government spent $147 billion on research and development in 2016, including $77 billion on defense and $70 billion on nondefense. Federal R&D spending has risen in recent decades on a constant-dollar basis, but has dipped as a share of gross domestic product. The AAAS has the data here.

How much should the federal government spend on R&D? AAAS data show that 23 percent of federal spending is for “basic” research, 25 percent is for “applied” research, and 52 percent is for “development.” Most economists would support the basic part, but be more skeptical of the applied and development parts because the private sector handles those activities.

The largest portion of federal nondefense R&D is for health care. In the Wall Street Journal today, a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School questions the value of this funding. Tom Stossel argues that the private sector makes most medical advances:

The assumption seems to be that the root of all medical innovation is university research, primarily funded by federal grants. This is mistaken. The private economy, not the government, actually discovers and develops most of the insights and products that advance health. The history of medical progress supports this conclusion.  


… In America, innovation came from physicians in universities and research institutes that were supported by philanthropy. Private industry provided chemicals used in the studies and then manufactured therapies on a mass scale.


… Since then, improvements in health have accumulated. Life expectancy has increased. Deaths from heart attack and stroke have radically decreased, and cancer mortality has declined. New drugs and devices have ameliorated the pain and immobility of diseases like arthritis. Yet the question remains: Is the government responsible for these improvements? The answer is largely no. Washington-centric research, rather, might slow progress.


… By contrast, private investment in medicine has kept pace with the aging population and is the principal engine for advancement. More than 80% of new drug approvals originate from work solely performed in private companies.

Cato’s Terence Kealey is also a skeptic of government-funded science.

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