The question obviously arises as to what the criteria should be for the expenditure of public funds. National defense, job creation (“pork”) and curing diseases are favorites among politicians. Basic scientific research is more difficult to justify with voters. It lacks a powerful political constituency. Basic research has unknown long term benefits to weigh against other funding proposals with presumed short term predictable benefits or tax cuts. One can certainly argue that basic research has created enormous benefits for society over the long term. Consider where we would be in 2005 without an understanding of electricity and magnetism.
Companies are quire willing to spend money on product development. The big three EDA companies Cadence, Synopsys and Mentor Graphics spent $350 million, $285 million and $202 million respectively on R&D during their last fiscal year. However, it is difficult to explain to the shareholders large expenditures on research that has no identifiable ROI. Further, many areas of research require expenditures beyond the financial means of even the largest companies. Lastly, basic scientific research requires cooperation, information sharing and possible coordination across companies, industries and countries. Only the federal government can insure this.
For more than 40 years, the NASA Commercial Technology Program has facilitated the transfer of NASA technology to the private sectors. The resulting commercialization has contributed to the development of commercial products and services in the fields of health and medicine, industry, consumer goods, computer technology, and environment. On an annual basis NASA issues Spinoff, a publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. Despite these public relation efforts many people believe that the only tangible benefits to the space program were pretty pictures, Tang and Velcro.
The table below shows the Federal budget authority for basic research by budget function over 5 years.
Federally Funded Research Programs
The remainder of this commentary covers some examples of projects that have had and/or will have significant government spending.
There are some well know examples of major government spending research programs. The Manhattan Project was begun at the urging of Albert Einstein and other physicists and led to the Atomic Bomb that ended WW II.
ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet, was brought online in 1969 under a contract let by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the DoD which initially connected four major computers at universities in the southwestern US (UCLA, Stanford Research Institute, UCSB, and the University of Utah). Harvard, BBN, Systems Development Corp, Stanford, MIT's Lincoln Labs, Carnegie-Mellon, and Case-Western Reserve U were soon added. The ARPANET was designed in part to provide a communications network that would work even if some of the sites were destroyed by nuclear attack. In 1985, NSF created NSFNET, a series of networks for research and education communication. Based on ARPANET protocols, the NSFNET created a national backbone service, provided free to any U.S. research and educational institution. At the same time, regional networks were created to link individual institutions with the national backbone service. NSF also coordinated a service called InterNIC that registered all addresses on the Internet so that data could be routed to the right system. The Next Generation Internet (NGI) initiative is a multi-agency Federal research and development program that is developing advanced networking technologies, developing revolutionary applications that require advanced networking, and demonstrating these capabilities on testbeds that are 100 to 1,000 times faster end-to-end than today's Internet.
The Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) project was intended to construct a ring particle accelerator near Waxahachie, Texas. The ring was designed to have a circumference of 54 miles and to have sufficient energy to create a Higgs boson, an elementary particle predicted by the Standard Model but not yet detected. The project was estimated to cost $8.5 billion. The project was eventually canceled by Congress in 1993 after 14 miles of tunnel were already dug and 2 billion dollars spent. The argument was that the country could not simultaneously afford the SCC and the International Space Station.
On October 4, 1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik 1. In response the United States established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on October 1, 1958 to be responsible for advancing flight-related technology. On May 25, 1961 in a special message to Congress on Urgent National Needs President Kennedy set a goal for the country. “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish.”
Several major space programs followed: Human space flight initiatives-Mercury's single astronaut program (flights during 1961-1963) to ascertain if a human could survive in space; Project Gemini (flights during 1965-1966) with two astronauts to practice space operations, especially rendezvous and docking of spacecraft and extravehicular activity; and Project Apollo (flights during 1968-1972) to explore the Moon. Neil Armstrong's step onto the Moon's surface on July 20, 1969 was followed by robotic missions to the Moon (Ranger, Surveyor, and Lunar Orbiter), Venus (Pioneer Venus), Mars (Mariner 4, Viking 1 and 2), and the outer planets (Pioneer 10 and 11 , Voyager 1 and 2). In addition a number of satellites were launched into orbit: Landsat for environmental monitoring and Echo 1, TIROS, and Telstar for communications and weather monitoring.
The program to achieve Kennedy's goal cost $25.4 billion over the life of the program. Only the building of the Panama Canal rivaled the size of the Apollo program as the largest nonmilitary technological endeavor ever undertaken by the United States.
In 1975, NASA cooperated with the Soviet Union to achieve the first international human spaceflight, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.
In 1984, Congress authorized NASA to build a major new space station as a base for further space exploration. Several redesigns took place during the next nine years. Then Russia, which had many years of experience in long-duration human spaceflight, joined the United States and other international partners in 1993 to build a facility that became known as the International Space Station (ISS). The International Space Station draws upon the resources and the scientific and technological expertise of 16 cooperating nations, including the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia and 11 participating member nations of the European Space Agency.
In January 2004 President Bush announced a new vision for the Nation's space exploration program. The President committed the United States to a long-term human and robotic program to explore the solar system, starting with a return to the Moon that will ultimately enable future exploration of Mars and other destinations. The President's plan for steady human and robotic space exploration is based on the following goals:
America will complete its work on the International Space Station by 2010.
United States will begin developing a new manned exploration vehicle to explore beyond our orbit to other worlds. The Crew Exploration Vehicle, will be developed and tested by 2008 and will conduct its first manned mission no later than 2014.
America will return to the Moon as early as 2015 and no later than 2020 and use it as a stepping stone for more ambitious missions. Using the Crew Exploration Vehicle, humans will conduct extended lunar missions as early as 2015, with the goal of living and working there for increasingly extended periods.
The U.S. Human Genome Project was a 13-year effort started in 1990 and coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health. The project originally was planned to last 15 years, but rapid technological advances accelerated the completion date to 2003. Project goals were to
- identify all the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA,
- determine the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA,
- store this information in databases,
- improve tools for data analysis,
- transfer related technologies to the private sector, and
- address the ethical, legal, and social issues (ELSI) that may arise from the project.