Policy Analysis No. 22

He Who Pays the Piper: Federal Funding Of Research

By Don Doig
March 17, 1983

Executive Summary

A groundswell of discontent has arisen in the U.S. scientific community, fueled by uncertainty of federal funding, censorship, red tape, and assorted other ills. In 1979 one observer noted, in an editorial in Science magazine:

During the past 2 months I have had casual conversations with about 20 professors from widely scattered universities. If their attitudes are an indication of the spirit on campus, the long-term future of science in America is in jeopardy. Not one of those 20 conveyed the impression that life is great, science is fun, and that academic research is the best possible of all activities. Rather the majority were gloomy — some were bitter. How could such individuals inspire the young and foster in them a love of knowledge and a zeal for lifelong scholarship? [1]

Not too long ago, a sense of euphoria and opportunity pervaded the research world; funding was increasing rapidly, scientists encountered minimal red tape, and research departments were expanding. What has happened? Recent years have seen expanding involvement of the federal government in the funding of basic research, and with this involvement has come bureaucratization and politicization. Scientists and administrators within the research community have increasingly expressed alarm at this development. Researchers yearn for the halcyon days when ample resources were forthcoming from the government and regulation was relatively light.

Following World War II, the federal government began to provide significant support for university research. Federal involvement increased dramatically when the Soviets gained the lead in the space race with the launch of Sputnik. Policy-makers wanted to enhance the size of America’s research efforts to provide a better basis for technological and military expansion to counter what they perceived as the Soviet threat.

The university and research communities in the U.S. probably should have viewed this largess with some skepticism, incorporating as it did the centralization and militarization of science. It is difficult to reconcile the ideal of an unfettered pursuit of knowledge with the demands of a defense establishment intent on utilizing science and technology in pursuit of military superiority, or with the demands of a democratic society for accountability for the use of federal funds. Former President Eisenhower, in his famous warning against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, went on to describe the pernicious effects of federal funding of science: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal government project allocation, and the power of money, is ever present, and is gravely to be regarded.”[2]

The university and research communities in the U.S. probably should have viewed this largess with some skepticism, incorporating as it did the centralization and militarization of science. It is difficult to reconcile the ideal of an unfettered pursuit of knowledge with the demands of a defense establishment intent on utilizing science and technology in pursuit of military superiority, or with the demands of a democratic society for accountability for the use of federal funds. Former President Eisenhower, in his famous warning against the dangers of the military-industrial complex, went on to describe the pernicious effects of federal funding of science: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal government project allocation, and the power of money, is ever present, and is gravely to be regarded.”[2]

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Don Doig is an associate policy analyst of the Cato Institute with a background in microbiology research.