Matt Hourihan is perhaps the world's expert on how the U.S. government funds basic science and development activities. He joins the show to talk about the big picture of where the money goes, how the focus has changed over time, and the consequences of budget cuts to critical science investments.
Mat Kaplan: Welcome back everybody, this is the Space Policy Edition of Planetary Radio coming to you as it is intended to, the first Friday in February, that's when this program becomes available. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of Planetary Radio. And I am joined once again by our senior space policy advisor and chief advocate at The Planetary Society, Casey Dreier. Welcome Casey.
Casey Dreier: Hey Mat, looking forward to getting super wonky in this episode with you and our listeners. Just a quick plug, we have coming up very soon the guest this month is Matt Hourihan from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program there. And we go into it on federal investments in basic science, research and development. It is super interesting, a little broader than what we tend to talk about in terms of just space on the show. But he is an expert and you've probably seen a lot of the work he has done, whether you know his name or not. So look forward to the interview coming up soon.
Mat Kaplan: It's fascinating. And I think the Venn diagram of this would be what Matt deals with as a big circle and what we usually talk about as a small circle entirely in that big circle. I think that that especially for those of you who really tune in to hear the inner workings in DC, you will not be disappointed by this conversation. Here's something else that you won't be disappointed by. We've got Planetfest coming up, Planetfest '21 to Mars and back begins on Saturday, February 13, we have the greatest program, it really is, especially for a virtual event. I am blown away by the caliber of guests that we are picking up for Planetfest. You should check it out at a planetary.org/planetfest21 and see this amazing lineup, not just of people who will be joining us on panels and in other sessions, but the topics that we will be covering. And one of those sessions is yours Casey.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, Mat, well, speaking of really exciting guests, I will be there as you mentioned. So we will be doing an advocacy workshop for how do you advocate for Mars as part of Planetfest? And then I will also be chairing a session on the future of human space flight. And we have Rick Davis from NASA's science mission directorate. He's their lead exploration staff there talking about what it takes to get humans to Mars. So both of those will happen on again, February 13th and 14th. And I should also say, this is our first Planetfest in almost 10 years, this is a big deal virtual, as you might imagine. So I think it's like only 30 bucks for two days of great content, and we'll throw this in for free. You will not get COVID by attending Planetfest. That is a free bonus.
Mat Kaplan: And if you're a member of The Planetary Society, it's even cheaper, I think it's $20. All of this, all the details are where I said planetary.org/planetfest21. Casey, that last Planetfest, do you remember where you were during the climax, the seven minutes of terror?
Casey Dreier: Mat, you were standing right next to me, as we watched Curiosity land on Mars. That was a very profound moment in my life. And that was I think three or so weeks after I was hired at The Planetary Society. So that was a great start to my now almost nine year tenure here.
Mat Kaplan: That was jumping up and down, thrilling excitement, not just the two of us, of course, but the thousands of people who were there with us in the Pasadena Convention Center. And you'll have a chance to do that again. Yeah, it'll be virtual, but join us when, on Thursday, February 18th Perseverance goes through seven more minutes of terror because Bill and I will be hosting our special sort of value added coverage of Perseverance is landing there in Jezero Crater. You've got even more reason to be excited this time, you have a direct connection to the mission.
Casey Dreier: Yes. I married a direct connection to the mission. My wife is on the Mastcam-Z camera team. She was on the team when they proposed the camera way back in 2014. So I have seen her and her colleagues work on this mission for more than seven years. And it's a new experience to kind of share that kind of investment and the landing being successful, but also just truly appreciating how much work it takes to build things that go to Mars. It's just an astonishing amount... When you see this land on the 18th and God willing, it will land safely and it will be a great, exciting moment. That moment is the result of uncountable amounts of human hours spent working on that for many, many, many years, like planned down to the minutia.
Casey Dreier: It's honestly awesome in the very literal sense, the amount of work that people are able to put into this, and this is what it takes to pull off this kind of exploration, the very fact. I'm always reminded Mat of John F. Kennedy's statement when he was arguing for the moon landing, "We do this not because it is easy, but because it is hard." The very nature of exploration like this, the fact that it is hard is the value of doing it. You challenge some of the brightest people around the world to do some of the hardest things for purely peaceful motivations. It's just profound and you see that kind of outcome and the inspiration it brings to people on the pathways and where they go after. It just really brings it home in a sense to see the value of this type of exploration. It's very inspiring.
Mat Kaplan: Here's to a landing on Mars by Perseverance that is just as exciting and successful as what we witnessed eight and a half years ago with Curiosity, which was so incredibly exciting. Here's also to hoping that we will see a continuation of exploration around our solar system and more broadly, lots of science. You've got some news, which I had not heard about some support for the Artemis Human Lunar Exploration Program that just came out today as we speak.
Casey Dreier: Yeah, we're about two weeks now into the Biden administration, two and a half weeks or so give or take. And we're seeing a little bit of hints like the administration themselves hasn't announced any new policy, Biden hasn't spoken about it. I think the White House press secretary got her first question about Artemis either today or yesterday. She did not have an answer on it, but for those who are doubting necessarily the future of Artemis, again, I think we can put a little bit of those uncertainty to rest. We saw a letter signed by 11 democratic senators to the Biden administration, asking them to request what they called full funding for the human landing system for Artemis going forward in the next budget proposal due any month now for NASA. And also to support... Yeah, it's always a little delayed when a new administration comes in.
Casey Dreier: But it's important I think because they simultaneously emphasize the need for pursuing lunar exploration, but also for supporting NASA science programs, which is music to my ears, because what we had seen over the last few years under the Trump administration was great support for human exploration. But then they'd tried to cancel, the Roman Space Telescope, they tried to cancel some earth science missions, they tried to cancel the Sofia observatory. So what we'd love to see is an everybody wins approach, because then everybody wins. But it's eminently doable, Congress always restored the funding.
Casey Dreier: So what you're seeing here is a good contingent of Democrats, including one of the highest ranking Democrats in the Senate, Patty Murray, from Washington state, throwing their support very publicly behind Artemis, which is again, because of its, I'd say ties to the previous administration also gets a lot of support from Republicans, particularly in the Senate. So if the Biden administration really wants to, I think they could just continue to grow NASA at a healthy clip support both of these efforts, Artemis and the Robotic Science Missions. And that's like an easy political win, if they want that as a political win, I think it's there for the taking. And this is a good sign that you see that Congress has kind of saying, "Hey, propose this. We're willing to back you up on it."
Mat Kaplan: Casey, you know what I take as a very good omen? It's that moon rock on display in the Oval Office.
Casey Dreier: Right. Yeah, he got a moon rock to inspire him about what America can do when it wants to. And I would always just emphasize if I was talking to the president, which I have not, I should emphasize better if I were. I'd say, that moon rock did not just happen, it took, as I've done the analysis, it took about $280 billion to bring that moon rock back. It's not enough just to say, I want to do an Apollo style moonshot, whether it's to the moon or to cure cancer or to whatever you got to put the resources behind it, that's how they succeed. It took a lot of effort, both parties during the 1960s, sustained commitment to ensure the success of Apollo. I think you're seeing again, there's a lot of positive signs about this. Again, I'd say reasonably the president and his administration are really focusing on the coronavirus pandemic right now.
Casey Dreier: That's obviously going to be the big focus, but and I should maybe just tease this by about next week, I'd say in terms of the time we're recording this. So February 10th or so The Planetary Society will be releasing its formal recommendations to the Biden administration about what it should focus on in NASA. You won't find too many surprises from what we've talked about here. If you're listening, a long-term listener to the show, but again, I think the opportunities to plan for the economic recovery NASA is a part of that solution. And investing in space and doing these kinds of hard programs that really invigorate and inspire people in the high, skilled manufacturing, STEM fields and critical thinking and peaceful cooperative collaboration. These are all opportunities that fit right in with what we're trying to do as a nation, whether you're Republican or Democrat. And seeing NASA as that tool, not as something that's done out there, but something that's done here on earth for us, I think is going to be key into presenting it as a solution to a problem, rather, a problem to be solved.
Mat Kaplan: I cannot wait to read those recommendations that you on behalf of all Planetary Society members, and I'm one of those, will soon be forwarding to the Biden administration. Casey, let's go ahead and dive into this wonky discussion that you have with your guest Matt.
Casey Dreier: Mat, I assume you mean that very positively.
Mat Kaplan: Oh, how could it be otherwise? Wonks make the world go round.
Casey Dreier: That is actually very true. And as you point out, I think we tend to talk about a subset. So this is like a super set discussion about overall R&D. And I think one of the key takeaways for me, and this is what I always wanted to talk to Matt about is relatively the entire scope of U.S. investment in basic science and development. It's about 160 or so billion a year, out of a $4.5 trillion budget. If you accept all of NASA's all basic R&D debatable, but roughly I'll say 20 billion of that 160 billion goes to NASA. The rest of it goes to the department of defense. And it's kind of amazing how much this country does all things considered. Like if we spend about 10% of all of our discretionary funding on science and basic development, think of what we could do with twice of that investment.
Casey Dreier: We're literally benefiting now very literally from advances in basic research for mRNA vaccine development, CRISPR genetic and all of this genetic analysis and research that has been done for "no return on investment" by basic R&D over the last 40 years. But suddenly it becomes very, very valuable. This is a relative pittance that we spend as a nation. And it's kind of amazing to think about what if we just push that up a little more, just think, let's just think of what we could find or what inspiration or what scientific discoveries or what beneficial consequences to humanity are just waiting to be discovered. And so that's kind of the subtext of this discussion.
Mat Kaplan: It's not as if perhaps our major competitor across the globe is not doing the same with its investment in R&D.
Casey Dreier: Any nation that really thinks about it starts heavily investing in R&D as soon as they can. The fundamental argument really isn't in question, whether it's a valuable use of funds. We go back into the 1940s Vannevar Bush with Science, The Endless Frontier Report, where he basically pitched that it's a very new concept that the government spends public money on science for the benefit, not just for the pure good, but also fundamentally an aspect of national security. Can we compete on a technological global world? So it's always a little baffling to me that even though the fundamental argument is no longer in question, we still have to argue for the application of that, in a sense through the budget process, every year. We have to beg, cajole, push people, push a little bit more to this basic R&D because we guarantee benefits to the nation in the long-term and very likely short-term too.
Mat Kaplan: Well, we'll keep pushing. But for the next few minutes, we'll be listening to Matt Hourihan. Anything else you want to say before we dive in?
Casey Dreier: Let's go right to it.
Mat Kaplan: All right. Here's Casey with his guest.
Casey Dreier: Well, Matt, thank you for coming on to the Space Policy Edition. Glad you're here.
Matt Hourihan: Thank you for having me.
Casey Dreier: So before we really go into a broader discussion of federal R&D, I think it might be actually quite useful to just really quickly define what we mean by it. If there's a more technical aspect, I think we all have a general idea of what research and development kind of stands for. But I was thinking about this today, how do you define research versus development? Why do we talk about these two aspects of what we tend to lump together?
Matt Hourihan: Yes, that's a great question. So the technical answer, the definitions for these things are actually established officially by OMB, the Office of Management and Budget at the White House. And we can think of basic science as the quest for fundamental knowledge an understanding of natural phenomenon, applied science. We're starting to move into taking that knowledge and pursue experimentation towards some kind of a particular use in the creation of a technology, a process, some kind of an artifact. But then development goes a little bit deeper into that creation of a concrete product or process in a specific use that is intended ultimately to result in some kind of a usable technology. Now, having said that, one of the distinctions I like, there's a book, I believe it's called Cycles of Invention and Discovery and folks can look that up on their preferred search engine, but it's a great book on the research enterprise and tackles a lot of, gets the question of basic versus applied research and why do we call them this?
Matt Hourihan: And it develops an alternate approach to talking about R&D, and science and technological development. But one of the distinctions they make that I really like between research and development is the idea that research is unscheduled. It's creative, experimental activity, trying to answer questions and develop knowledge, whereas development is a scheduled kind of activity. When we're doing systems engineering to actually take the ideas underlying some new technology, and actually build a device, build a prototype with certain set of milestones and cost targets and things along those lines, that is development. And maybe the last thing I'll say is that for federal purposes, there really aren't that many big funders of development. The bulk of the development enterprise is really the Pentagon, the military branches, building new weapons systems and tanks and planes and communications platforms and what have you.
Matt Hourihan: That accounts for the bulk of development. NASA unsurprisingly accounts for a big chunk of the development, of the non-defense development. Then you've got like DOE and transportation and a couple of others, but really when we talk about development, the biggest by far chunk of that is the defense weapons and technology acquisition system. Research on the other hand, that's like the domain of the National Science Foundation and the Office of Science at DOE, NIH and parts of DOD as well. But research tends to be a much more non-defense civilian oriented activity. Whereas development again, it's Pentagon, a lot of it it's military, it's weapons and national security technology with some leftover for space exploration and others.
Casey Dreier: Would development be something like creating an observatory, like the gravity wave observatories, for example, kind of taking a new concept and then deploying a brand new application, or is it more of a technical idea than that? So like you talk about with the Pentagon taking and creating these new physical things, wheeling something into existence almost out of these new theoretical constructs. And do you see that also in a more limited sense in terms of how we develop new ways to interrogate the cosmos or the natural world around us through instrumentation?
Matt Hourihan: Possibly. The reality of it is that what gets called development versus research, it can be very subjective. Each agency that funds these activities has its own people, they'll work from the same, in theory, work from the same definition. But they all have their own people, their own budget offices working on this stuff, trying to figure out what they should call basic versus applied versus development. At times they may work with their partners, whether it's research investigators or contractors, or whoever to try to work with them, to help characterize and classify what to call their activities. The other thing I didn't mention is that there is another category known as R&D plant. It's a small portion of the overall pie, but R&D plant refers to facilities and equipment.
Matt Hourihan: Something like LIGO, I don't know, but my guess would be that portions of that, that were federally funded... The development of the tool itself and the hard technologies themselves, some of that may have been development when they were actually trying to create the tool itself. But then you've also got this other category for R&D plant, where once they've created it, they've created a working technology, then they've actually got to go build it in reality. Things like lab construction, that gets characterized as R&D plant, research vessels often will get categorized as R&D plants. So that's a whole other category, it's not a huge portion of the overall pie, it's a relatively small slice compared to research and development, but that would also account for a lot of the things that you're talking about.
Casey Dreier: So you mentioned Pentagon development and also they do research too. And let's maybe make a big cleave in terms of how I think we're going to talk really about R&D going forward, at least in terms of my interests. You have kind of the Department of Defense in the United States, and then you have kind of all of the other agencies in terms of the pot of money that is spent on R&D funding from government. Can you just briefly address that outline? And then we can dive down into some of these other agencies, but how has this division, roughly what is that division? What does the Pentagon spend, is that kind of considered separate, is that similar in kind to what we do in terms of civilian R&D or is it really a specialty application of it?
Matt Hourihan: That's a great question. So I'll start with the outline first. So that the overall, and I'm just kind of going to speak very much in generalities here, so the overall federal R&D budget is about 160 billion roughly give or take, about half of that, these days a little bit less than half, I think is Pentagon R&D. So the remainder would be mostly non-defense. The other piece that we haven't mentioned is the national Nuclear Security Administration, which is a defense agency that is defense R&D spending, but it gets counted under the Department of Energy, which is most of [inaudible 00:21:33] programs are non-defense programs, it's research programs especially. So it's a fairly even split, complicating things is also the fact that they've actually changed around what they count as R&D.
Matt Hourihan: Just within the last few years, it used to be the defense was slightly more than half, now there're slightly less than half because of some accounting changes that we can get into if you really want to, but that gets pretty wonky pretty quickly. But so DOD is about half. Now, is it similar or different? Again, most of the defense spending it's defense contractors, it's like Raytheon and other such contractors actually trying to build new systems. That said, DOD does fund a pretty substantial research enterprise as well. Now, a lot of that is going to be intramural, army labs, air force labs, et cetera, but they do fund a fairly substantial extramural research enterprise as well. And that include universities, might include other national labs and perhaps some for-profit firms. You've got agencies like DARPA that are within the Pentagon, that fund all extramural research.
Matt Hourihan: And so a lot of that stuff... There may be some additional rules and restrictions on it for talking about national security of course. A lot of the people that talk about the importance of fostering a research enterprise, many folks don't really distinguish much in my experience between funding from NSF, DOE and other such agencies and DOD is a funding source. So I think once you get, especially on the basic science side, the fundamental stuff, I'm not sure if I would see much of a distinction, but I think it's more, once you get further down the pipeline.
Casey Dreier: That's what I was wondering though, is the basic research from DOD done with some sort of applied eye, as opposed to something like NSF, which is going to give potentially a grant for someone to look into refine the cosmological concept or something very abstract, fundamental, very not applied. Does the DOD say, "Well, we'll do basic research, but it's always, feeds forward into some defense purpose." And that strikes me as a distinction in kind almost, that DOD funding is not done for just the benefit of greater human knowledge. It's always done for a national security purpose, theoretically.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah, that's true. But that's also kind of, I think that's fairly similar to kind of characterize a lot of NIH research like that. They're not just doing it to expand knowledge, they're doing it because they want to eventually understand disease to be able to treat it, basic science coming out of the office of science. Some of it is very much pure knowledge as you described, others also have an eye toward some kind of a use, but yes, DOD would definitely, I would wholly categorize as user inspired basic research if you want to call it that.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. And I wonder if this kind of just gets to the larger purpose of why does government spend money on research and development? It's not going to be purely for curiosity, it's not some purely high-minded reason. It's going to have in political system, it has to have some sort of reason. And reason on some at least relatively short to mid range times. To your point about the National Institutes of Health, it's kind of the same point. It's not just to understand DNA better of how viruses work better, it's to understand how viruses work better in order to make better treatments for them that we're clearly benefiting today. And I don't know if it's just me or I feel like there's a lot of people who just kind of react negatively to the idea of Department of Defense research, getting so much compared to what we call civilian, but it may just be a conceptual distinction without a real applicational difference, by the way that you're kind of phrasing it. When it comes down to it, people are still doing basic research and it almost doesn't matter as much where the money is coming from.
Matt Hourihan: I think it to some extent, because there is a long history of defense technology spin off, so there are some real world [crosstalk 00:25:58]. Exactly-
Casey Dreier: I'd say it's a notable one.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah. As we speak over the internet now here we are, but it's... So one thing I'll say just regards to the dollars. So it's worth noting the non-defense, this is off the top of my head, but the non-defense research budget is probably something like $80 billion now. The defense department research budget, so not development but just research, that's I believe about $7 or $8 billion. So it's like 10 times in terms of just research. The vast majority of it is on the non-defense side. So I don't know if that that helps you feel any better.
Casey Dreier: Well, no, that's a good distinction to what you were saying earlier, most the Department of Defense is going to be the development side of things-
Matt Hourihan: [inaudible 00:26:46] the projects yeah.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. So let's move on. So I'm going to kind of just wanted to talk about the defense side and generally for my interest and I think most of our audience, we're going to focus on the civilian side. I just wanted to touch on the defense side because when you look at the numbers and I should say we'll link to this in our show notes. But if you go to the aaas.org website, you can see a lot of Matt's work under the budget and policy resources area. I see your plots that you generate and keep updated, basically used everywhere. Everyone, anytime someone talks about science spending, they'll grab one of your charts, stick it in their talk. And it's like, yep, I can recognize that the fonts and what I imagine is Excel tables of putting these together. So when we're talking about these things, you can go and reference the exact numbers online. They're just a fantastic resource. And it's one of the reasons Matt, I'm such a fan of the work that you do is that you do such careful thoughtful work with this.
Matt Hourihan: Thank you. And it's, maybe we should say now that the URL is actually real easy, it's just aaas.org, so A-A-A-S.org/rd.
Casey Dreier: To your point, though, about overall R&D spending by the U.S. government, you said it's about 160 ish billion. We're just going kind of do hand waving numbers off the top of our heads for this. I want to put this in context, because this is something that is in terms of when we start to talk about the policy aspect of this, I'm really interested. I like this as seeing as a percentage of what we call discretionary spending, the amount of money Congress decides to spend every year. This is distinct, because a lot of people will put it as a chunk of overall U.S. spending, but something, what is it? Three quarters of all U.S. spending is mandatory, it's just automatically happening by law. And so it's not really a political, it doesn't represent a political statement or a policy statement because it's already written into law, it's automatic spending, but the annual churn in terms of appropriating money, that's political trade-offs.
Casey Dreier: There's a process that Congress goes through in the White House proposals. And that kind of, I think is a better gauge in terms of what priority does science occupy. And so you have some again, great charts that show kind of over time, relative percentage of this discretionary spending pot of U.S. government's money that goes into R&D. You can break it out by non-defense and defense, which I like, and non-defense give or take around seems 10% for about the last 30 years. So there's a story here, I'll be kind of interested to see your interpretation of the story. From my kind of broad interpretation, I'd say immediate peak of the cold war starting in the... Well, probably starting earlier in the fifties, but really pick up data in the sixties. It peaks at about 25% of non-defense discretionary spending.
Matt Hourihan: Right. Space race.
Casey Dreier: Space race. Then trails down, is that all driven by NASA, that big bump, and then it was kind of this aberration, then it kind of reduces back. And then from there on out, it's about 10 or so percent for the last 30, 40 years. It's kind of gone up a little bit maybe in the nineties and then down a little bit during budget of control, but it really seems, I'd say stuck at this level. And so of all the money the government decides, or the Congress decides to spend every year, they say about 10% goes to basic or general research and development.
Casey Dreier: That seems low, it seems it should be high. Is there anyone who's looked at the story of investing in science research and said, "Ah, boy, I wish we hadn't done that. That didn't turn out well. I'm really sad we have all these mRNA quick vaccines right now. We really shouldn't have invested so much." How come it can't break out of that. And again, I wonder if it's because you have this external factor of a highly technological scientific competitor of a different ideological structure, which drove internal political consensus in the United States to highly invest in R&D in general, or do you think it's more complicated than that?
Matt Hourihan: I think in terms of the space race, and then what's happened after the kind of, I think of it as an equilibrium really since like the mid 1970s, roughly. I don't know if we got past the space race because that big hump that is entirely space race. In fact, if you take a look at federal R&D by functional category, there'd be budget functions, there's a space function and agriculture and general science and energy and others, the space function just absolutely explodes in the 1960s during Apollo. And a lot of people do look back at the space race and kind of think of that as these golden days when federal R&D was much bigger. Well, it was bigger because of the space race. Now, if you take away space and then cold war defense related spending, most of that hump disappears.
Matt Hourihan: And so again, obviously the motivations for the space race are well-known and are what they are. Since then, I think you're right and it was driven by that international competition with national security undertones that has been mostly missing on the non-defense side now for my lifetime basically, more than my lifetime. So there's a couple of things here, I think worth noting. Number one, annual appropriations is an incredibly decentralized process rife with trade-offs. As I think you mentioned if an appropriator, and this is partly tied up I think in budget resolution and some of the big rules governing the annual spending process. But if I'm a champion for NASA or the National Science Foundation or whatever, and I want to see a big plus up... Well, first off, if I'm a champion for science, but I can't just wave a wand and plus up science overall, I've got to plus it up across multiple agencies and multiple spending bills.
Matt Hourihan: And each one of those spending bills is where a lot of the trade offs happen because when overall spending is going up, often spending increases kind of get distributed and kind of handed around the various spending bills. And they're 12 different spending bills. Sometimes they'll have some prioritized over others, no doubt, but there's a lot of continuity in the system. So when spending goes up for one bill, it goes up for several. And then even if spending is going up in a single spending bill, okay, let's say you want to plus up funding for the National Science Foundation. Well, in this day and age, NSF in that spending bill has to compete with the Justice Department, NASA, the Commerce Department. And so if there's extra funding in that bill, there may be a lot of people who would love to see increases for some of the science programs in that bill.
Matt Hourihan: But there are also a lot of people who care a lot about DOJ, FBI, U.S. Marshals among the other programs, some of the economic development administration throw out an example. There is an enormous array of competing interests and competing demands on the federal budget. So when we look at this long-term R&D equilibrium that you've identified, I think that's probably the most likely answer is simply the fact that the demands for science and R&D spending have never really superseded. They've stayed even with other demands on the discretionary budget and all the different things that government does, line items in the federal budget, they're there because somebody wants them there. Somebody thinks they're important all the way down, from NASA all the way down to the Marine Mammal Commission or whatever. There's a lot of different things we expect government to do in different constituencies, expect government to do.
Matt Hourihan: So breaking out of that equilibrium, it's very difficult because of all the different things we want in government to do. Now, the one thing I will point out though, so you're looking at the top line, the non-defense R&D top line. If you were to drill down and separate that out by different agencies, you'll actually see a somewhat more complicated story. While total non-defense R&D has been very stable within the discretionary budget, what's happened over time is that some agencies, and these are mostly basic science funders actually, so the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science within DOE, NIH certainly, these have actually increased as a share of the discretionary budget, the non-defense discretionary budget. And that goes back like 40 years and it's not perfectly smooth but it's fairly clear.
Matt Hourihan: So the story there is that over time probaters actually do seem to be trying to prioritize some of those kinds of agencies. On the other hand, other research funders, like USDA would be a big one, EPA and several others, they have declined as a share of the non-defense discretionary budget. And again, these are very kind of gradual trends, they're not super extreme for the most part, but they're there. So it does seem like Congress has been for many years, and again, this is going back like 40 years now, has been trying to some extent to prioritize some of those basic science funders, but they've deprioritized environmental research, agricultural research, possibly like infrastructure research and transportation that I'm not sure where those numbers are. So there is a bit of a differentiation even within the non-defense R&D budget, which is kind of interesting.
Casey Dreier: There's like three things I want to follow up with that. This is something I noticed while working through some of your numbers the other day for a talk I was giving. To your point about the story beneath that top line about, so we've had non-defense spending on R&D be about 10%, let's say for the last 30, 40 years. But in that context, you've seen the rise of the National Institutes of Health to be, I forget that it's something close to $40 billion a year now, almost half of all non-defense R&D funding now is at the NIH. Within that 10% envelope, we've had the growth from almost zero to now half of that being occupied by the NIH. So that kind of says something had to give in order for that NIH to grow to that portion.
Casey Dreier: And so, yeah, there's been these huge changes in the makeup of that 10%, your point I think as well made that there's no single science pot of funding in the U.S. appropriations process and the congressional appropriations process. As you said, is distributed through a bunch of different agencies, and some of those agencies you said USDA, EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, obviously NASA, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy. Despite that they all share some kind of science aspects of what they do, they're managed and overseen by very different committees. It is interesting. It is a hard, it's kind of amazing in a way that it has maintained overall about 10%.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah. I call that... You're absolutely right, it is an incredibly decentralized appropriation system. There's 12 different spending bills, to give you an idea and your listeners an idea, there's 12 different spending bills and I believe something like nine out of those 12 are responsible for at least a billion dollars in R&D and some a lot more. There are six that are responsible for at least 2 billion to 3 billion or more, so there's lots of different people involved in making lots of different decisions over lots of different pots for that overall R&D enterprise. I sometimes refer to that as the fact that it's at this equilibrium seemingly and it has been for decades, sometimes I call that the annual miracle. It almost defies logic, it doesn't make any sense, all these different people over decades can make different decisions and different trade-offs and we still end up at the same place.
Mat Kaplan: That's Casey dryer and his Space Policy Edition guest Matt Hourihan of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. They'll be back with more after this break.
Bill Nye: Greetings Bill Nye here, Saturday, Sunday, a fleet of spacecraft including NASA's Perseverance Rover's arriving at Mars. Join our live online celebration, Planetfest '21 this February 13th and 14th. I'll be there with explorers, including Jim Bell, Katie Mack, author of the Martian, Andy Weir, NASA JPL chief engineer, Rob Manning, and my old friend, Phil Plait, the bad astronomer. Get your tickets at planetary.org/planetfest21. We are going to Mars. Was that too much? I got into it there.
Mat Kaplan: No, you nailed it, boss.
Casey Dreier: What a better policy be to have a single, let's just ignore the structures of Congress for a second and just say, would it make more sense to have a single pot of R&D money that is then distributed to agencies to use for their work? So you don't have the same kind of... So instead maybe you have one congressional subcommittee of appropriations that has the R&D account and then federal agencies get doled from that. And so you could have one kind of champion focusing on overall R&D. Do you think that would result in better outcomes or would you be kind of stuck in the same type of system no matter what?
Matt Hourihan: I don't know. I think you'd still, there are probably all kinds of challenges with that kind of an approach that I'm not seeing. If I read you right, what you're suggesting, I think one of the downsides would be that you're reducing, doesn't that reduce the number of stakeholders that are responsible for allocating appropriations?
Casey Dreier: Kind of yeah. Or it would create a very invested set of stakeholders, that's the kind of the flip side, that you have a group committed to R&D as a concept and growing that pie. I haven't thought this through deeply, I'm just more kind of thinking. Are there more efficient ways to allocate this or is this a fundamental limit of our system that we spread the oversight and allocation of federal R&D through so many different committees for so many different purposes?
Matt Hourihan: Yeah, it's a great question. It's kind of fun to think about. Concentrating the power and the interests... So there is a relationship between, and this has been shown in the literature, there is a relationship between memberships of the various appropriation subcommittees and the geographic aspects of membership in those subcommittees and the various institutions and constituents that they represent. So you're more likely to represent an army base if you're on the defense subcommittee obvious to say, but statistically it's not just random. As Tip O'Neil says all politics is local. And I do think it's worth thinking about, if you bring down the number of appropriators who might be expected to care about R&D, I feel like that could very easily lead to a much more stratified system.
Matt Hourihan: What happens if the chair of that subcommittee one Congress it's somebody from Alabama. And so NASA exploration and NASA rockets are one of the big priorities. But then next Congress, maybe it's chaired by somebody from a district with a world-class research university and maybe it's less about NASA all of a sudden, and it's more about competitive grants from NIH. I'm sort of trying to think through the distributive implications of that. And it just seems like you'd be weakening, maybe that's the question. Is it better to have a small core of extremely devoted appropriators or is it better to have a broader core with varying interests who will go to bat for different pieces of the enterprise based on their constituent needs? I don't know.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. We don't have to solve those problems today. No, it's interesting. And that's a good point, in a system where you have geographical representation like our Congress, parochialism can be a strength for science, you don't have to be a huge fan of science. If you have a large accelerator or something in your district, and you want to keep jobs there, then it's a very practical matter and science kind of rides along on that parochial interest of keeping that institution funded or-
Matt Hourihan: Which is kind of how it works. That's-
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Exactly. And in a way the White House almost then acts as that centralized idea of kind of taking this overall view of R&D theoretically, that this would be a White House perspective and so it's kind of balanced out. Anyway, all right, well, we can move on from my completely rejiggering the entire congressional apparatus for science, but it's a good point. But the point fundamentally is that you have science R&D investment in the United States, is this distributed system, distributed process that doesn't have any kind of single point of pressure to increase. And the closest you would come I think, would be through the annual president's budget request, which would kind of take and prioritize certain initiatives cross-government over others. Do you see this in other countries this set up, do you know how much is this kind of a system that's replicated in nations beyond the United States? Or is this kind of idiosyncratic?
Matt Hourihan: Oh, it's very different. We have a presidential system in which we have the separation of powers and we have an incredibly strong legislature when it comes to funding issues. Most countries don't have that. Think about a parliamentary system, the executive grows out of the legislature or the parliament and legislators basically have less of a chance to make big impacts on the budget and varies country to country. But I think it's safe to say that in our system, in terms of budget matters, the executive is much weaker than the legislature, much stronger than most other places. Having said that, does it make it easier for other countries to make kind of big strategic investments? Maybe. You look at the UK for many years, they have surprisingly underperformed in R&D investment, they're not as research intensive an economy as we are.
Matt Hourihan: On the other hand, you do have in the last, I don't know, 20 years or so, if you look at research intensity, the U.S. has been kind of slowly surpassed by Germany, some of the Scandinavian countries, Korea certainly. Korea I think is the world leader, or I think they're number two behind Israel now in terms of research intensity overall and that's public and private sources. I don't know, I think it's, jury's probably out as to whether our system makes it easier or harder to make kind of sustained long-term strategic investments.
Casey Dreier: We've been obviously talking all about federal investment, but how does that compare to private investment in the United States right now into research and development or from industry, I guess I'm mainly thinking of. Is there a fundamental difference in kind between the two, are they complimentary fundamentally at this point, because you look at some of the charts again on the AAAS website and you can see industry scope of R&D appears to even dwarf what the federal government spends.
Matt Hourihan: Yes, for sure. So these days, the federal government used to be the number one funder back again, space race era, but industry surpassed the federal government right around 1980. And now industry funds roughly twice what the federal government funds in terms of R&D, it's by far the number one funder of R&D in the U.S. but as you said, it is very different. Industrial R&D is almost entirely deep, it's something like 80 cents for every dollar from industry is development. And then of the remainder, maybe 12 or 13 cents or so is applied research. And then a small amount of five or 6 cents of every dollar is basic science, something like that, and that's from the industrial side. Government, especially on the non-defense side, is able to focus on basic and applied research.
Matt Hourihan: So federal non-defense R&D is almost entirely R that means the government is able to fund things like or agencies like NSF, the inquiry that they fund. Government's able to take on riskier ventures and fund them in the longterm with uncertain outcomes. Industry tends to not do that kind of thing and I say that with the major asterisk, because there are exceptions, there always will be exceptions. Lately we have seen an uptick in what gets called basic research in certain sectors, certainly pharmaceuticals on the industrial side. The spending is up in basic science, a few other, I want to say possibly aerospace, if I recall correctly and a couple of other sectors where basic science industry is up which is a good thing, certainly.
Matt Hourihan: Again, we've got kind of the long-term trend in industry away from higher risk activities, away from quite as much scientific collaboration. Some research has pointed to shifting cultures within industrial labs, and again, kind of painting with a very broad brush here. So we think about kind of the approach to taking on risk, the approach to kinds of uncertain activities represented by research. I would certainly argue that industry and government are very complimentary to one another, government often does things that industry can't or won't and then industry similarly, does things that government can't and perhaps should. One example that I often like to point to is this agency ARPA-E the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, relatively young agency, it's only about a decade old in the Department of Energy. And they fund transformational, innovative energy technologies and the Government Accountability Office, which is federal watchdog, took a look at them some years back and assessed whether the kinds of technologies that ARPA-E funds, whether ARPA-E should be funding them, could they have gotten private investment if ARPA-E hadn't picked up the research funding tab.
Matt Hourihan: And their finding was that even for venture capital, the least risk averse portion or source of capital among industry a lot of what ARPA-E was doing, but most of what ARPA-E was doing was too risky even for them. So that kind of... To me, that's kind of how I think of the federal enterprise overall, the government is able to take on a lot of riskier activities that industry is unwilling to. In addition, there are of course, most of what, as we talked about earlier, most of what government funds has some kind of a mission attached to it. Public health, national security, low carbon energy resources. That's to me, one of the biggest motivators for government funding R&D is because it ensures that we get R&D that fulfills these public missions. And it's not perfect, it's never perfect, but funding R&D is a great way to ensure that you're fulfilling the public interest along many domains.
Casey Dreier: I feel like there's a tension between this idea. I agree with you, government should be funding areas that have higher risk or uncertain payout. That's the essence of basic research and development, but at the same time, we've seen this, I'd say growing trend over the last few decades, people in government or politicians, elected officials looking for and highlighting what they consider to be absurdities or examples of wasteful spending of basic research, the very point of which that's what they're to do. To do things that may or may not work that may seem weird to provide that. This tension, I guess, worries me at a certain level.
Casey Dreier: Do you feel like we still have a government policy that allows for failure of these types of things or the worry that I have is that with these examples are pretty high profile areas in terms of particularly ARPA-E, but other areas in which you hit on issues like climate, that there is a chilling effect, whether or not they fully defund or change these things at the agencies themselves turn to safest possible scientific investment. And instead you spend a lot of money on incremental science and less on potentially transformative uncertain science, by the consequence of over eager, I hesitate to call it public oversight, but politically driven public oversight.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah. I understand exactly what you're asking. I don't know if I have a good answer for that. I think the answer is yes, that there are spaces in federal agencies where there is room for risky and risky endeavors. You mentioned the periodic attacks on silly sounding science, certain legislators like to point to things that sound like questionable research, and they've been doing this for years. In response to that actually, there's just one thing I'll point out that we do actually us with partners, we sponsor something folks may or may not be familiar with this, it's called the Golden Goose Awards. And they're intended to actually highlight instances where absurd or silly or unexpected research results can lead to incredibly positive real world impacts. Like for example, the PCR tests that we use now to detect COVID-19, those tests have their roots in research around bacterial life living in the hot vents in I believe it was Yosemite National Park or Yellowstone National Park, one of those.
Matt Hourihan: And we actually gave a Golden Goose Award to the researchers who made those initial discoveries decades ago that eventually ended up leading to these modern tests for COVID-19. There's a couple of angles to this, so number one, there's political attacks on silly sounding science. And I think that there are those who question a lot of research, but there are also efforts underway to push back against those narratives and try to educate legislators on the value of even science that doesn't seem like it makes a whole lot of sense. On the other hand, there's another kind of way at this question, which is the peer review system, is it possible to get... Are we getting risky enough science coming out of peer review? Is it too conservative?
Matt Hourihan: And peer review remains the way you get kind of a steady march of science, but it does I think there is room for experimentation as well. Pursuing varied funding mechanisms like people-centered grants versus project grants, trying to use different models like research consortia and the ARPA model. There's various ways and we can kind of tweak the system and kind of build around the core, which is the peer review science and kind of the traditional peer review system to allow investigators to take on additional risk, to shoot for the moon as it were. And perhaps be a bit more creative than they might be able to within the confines of more traditional research. And I think there's a lot of interest in Congress in pursuing some bits of experimentation in how we fund science, how we approach it, what more transformational pursuits might look like.
Casey Dreier: It's one of those things I feel like just to put in the space world of which I'm more familiar, it's always easy to say you accept more risk, but when you actually deal with failure, that acceptance seems to dissipate. I think about the better, faster, cheaper program, two failures in a row, and that was done. And suddenly it wasn't cheap enough to fail. I think we do have this issue of where public oversight, I philosophically profoundly agree that the public should have oversight over how we spend our dollars, but at the same time, we seem to have created a system that doesn't tolerate any failure.
Casey Dreier: And that only allows failure, you look at something like SpaceX, which is kind of able to fail publicly all the time, because it's a "private company." NASA couldn't fail like that, not only because it has that kind of oversight, but because it kind of symbolically represents national capability. And so scientifically supporting kind of wild ideas that may or may not pan out the framework or the infrastructure we have to evaluate scientific value or potential or validity seems to err on the side of conservatism in terms of what people are trying to do. I'm not quite sure how to use public policy to allow failure to occur without a reaction happening, I don't know. If you can solve that problem, that'd be great.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah. Well, [crosstalk 00:55:24]. The other way to think about too is there's larger profile technology endeavors that might cost several million a year, but then you have small scale research grants, project grants that might be half a million dollars over three years. So maybe it's, I wonder if the relationship to risk and the acceptance or not of risk and failure probably is different for larger, more visible projects that take up lots of public dollars versus smaller research grants that are less visible. I guess the source of the conservatism might be very different depending on which kinds of programs we're talking about.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. It always strikes me. And I'd be curious to hear your thoughts or kind of how the impact of just overall R&D spending, how that's distributed throughout the country. So I'll just say I'm married to a professional scientist. I see kind of firsthand when she gets a grant that it can be what you're saying on the order of a few hundred thousand dollars over the course of a few years, but that helps pay her salary. A big portion of that goes to operating the university through overhead costs, a lot of it goes to paying students at a pretty minimal wage to do science. And you think about that scaled up, we're talking about a few hundred thousand dollars. So if you're spending on the order of billions of dollars, that's a lot of people that you're supporting into existence. And that's a ton of students that you're allowing to work on science instead of having to flip burgers or something over the summer. It seems like pushing for even modest increases into science R&D that would have huge implications into the scientific the workforce, but also just into the economy more broadly.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah, for sure. And there've been studies that have been done that find pretty extended economic impacts across the supply chain, like federal grants that fund researchers in Ohio actually have knock on effects when it comes to... Of course there's, as you mentioned, students and the localized effects as well, but researchers have to buy equipment, have to buy tools. The supply chain for those things that they buy, the materials that they buy, actually that can have major ripple effects like cost to cost as well. So there are some very real effects, you're absolutely right. There's also the research on the effects of short term surges in science spending as economic stimulus.
Matt Hourihan: I'm thinking specifically of the 2008 recession, we had the Recovery Act and there was a lot of, almost $20 billion in R&D kind of one time spent as part of the Recovery Act. There's a ton of research that I've seen yet that evaluates that, but what little I have seen suggests there are actually some pretty substantial job creation effects that come out of federally funded R&D, and that potentially could be much larger than many other things that the government might do. So there is real upside, unfortunately, it can be hard to, at least as far as I'm aware, it can be hard to kind of get a handle on.
Casey Dreier: Let me bring this to some of the work that you just recently did at the AAAS, which was what happens when you take money away from science. Here in the U.S. we just got out of this tenure budget envelope of the Budget Control Act, which attempted to put significant spending restraints on discretionary spending and expo some non discretionary spending. You just did a recent analysis saying that, even though Congress kind of reduced that restriction a number of times over the last 10 years, something like $200 billion was basically removed from what should have been spent at the previous trends in R&D. Can you just talk about kind of how you got to that conclusion and kind of what implications does that have for science in the United States?
Matt Hourihan: Yeah, let's travel back through the mists of time to 2010, we had the 2010 midterms, we had the Tea Party wave election in 2010, the Tea Party especially in the house exerted a lot of pressure. They represented to some extent of backlash to some of the big deficits that government ran during the financial crisis in the previous few years and other things as well. It wasn't just about the deficits, but this kind of fiscal hawk energy kind of took the Congress by storm following the 2010 midterms. It led to a debt ceiling crisis, and eventually Congress adopted the Budget Control Act of 2011 as a deficit reduction measure. Now the Budget Control Act, it really did three things, most importantly, for our purposes.
Matt Hourihan: Number one, it set an initial set of spending caps below congressional budget office projections, something like a trillion dollars less than government was expected to spend over the next decade. So that's number one, an initial set of 10 years spending caps. Second thing it did was it required the establishment of a joint congressional committee that would look at different ways to reduce the deficits, come up with some kind of a grand bargain, mix of revenue increases and spending cuts and whatever, Democrats and Republicans get together. That's the second thing it did. The third thing it did is set up a contingency plan when that super committee or the deficit reduction committee, if it were to fail, that committee did fail. And so the third step, the contingency plan kicked in, and that was a second set of even lower spending caps, again, over the period of 10 years, cutting another trillion or so out of the discretionary budget.
Matt Hourihan: So from the 2012 fiscal year, when the caps first took effect through the current fiscal year 2021, the Congressional Budget Office projected, they were going to cut around $2 trillion over the decade out of the federal discretionary budget, which is where just about all federal R&D lives, discretionary spending. So obviously this is major spending reduction below normal. Since those caps took effect in the law took effect on five different occasions, Congress has adopted a series of spending deals to partially raise the caps a couple of years at a time usually. And so in the end spending didn't come down by as much as the original authors of the Budget Control Act intended. But it still came down by quite a bit, it slowed spending down, especially in the first few years of the decade, 12 and 13, the 2013 fiscal year is when we had the big across the board cuts known as sequestration that took spending down for every program and agency.
Matt Hourihan: Since then spending has grown a bit, but again, it's been shy of where it would have been. The question that I wanted to try to get at was how much did we actually lose because of these spending caps. If you go back and you look at federal R&D spending, and I just picked the 30 year period because we have good data on R&D Budget Authority over that time, and it got us past the space race. So I looked at federal R&D from 1978 up through 2008, so right at the start of the financial crisis. As it turns out, federal R&D on average grows by about 5.7% per year, over that 30 year period, not totally smoothly, there've been ups and downs, but on average, federal R&D grows about 5.7% a year. So I simply asked the question, how much would we have spent if we had simply maintained our historical average and we allowed federal R&D for basic research, applied research, development, but we simply allowed it to grow at the historical average, no more, no less.
Matt Hourihan: So I projected that forward then compared that against what we actually ended up spending. And the results are as you mentioned, I think cumulatively federal R&D is around $240 billion below where it might have been if we had simply spent at that historical average that includes basic research, applied research, development. Annually, at this point, we're talking about an annual R&D budget that's about $30 billion less than it might've been otherwise. So these are big numbers.
Casey Dreier: That's a lunar program difference, if you want to stick that in there.
Matt Hourihan: These are huge. So that's what we lost. It's hard to say, but maybe everyone who's listening, imagine what your favorite federal science agency might have done if they had an extra 20% in their budget over the past decade every year, what would NASA have done?
Casey Dreier: Maybe we'd still have Arecibo, maybe they would have done the repairs-
Matt Hourihan: Maybe so. Yeah, no, absolutely. Yeah, that's a lot of lost money.
Casey Dreier: I was just looking at they do a survey of recent doctorate awards, people who just got their PhD, and survey, do you have a job, basically, it's one of the questions they ask. And you can see the dip in the percentage of all recent doctorates in terms of job prospects during the beginning of the secret stringent Budget Control Act and continued down slope. And it's recovered somewhat in the last few years, but most areas of science, computer science is kind of the one exception, but most doctorates who are getting degrees are still below where they would have been 10 years ago. So seeing your article, and then having seen that data, you really think about how many scientific careers were forever stymied by this pointless cut. How many future scientists will we not have? How many future discoveries will we see delayed or not achieved?
Casey Dreier: And it's impossible to answer that question. And then when you look at, of course, we should point out that the Budget Control Act failed in its goal. It did not reduce the deficit, the deficit continued to grow and the U.S. debt exploded in the last administration, I think something added like almost $8 trillion. So the cuts kind of happened for no reason, they didn't achieve the goal. So it just kind of adds to that just frustration. And I think maybe [inaudible 01:05:46] also says how responsive science funding is to the overall trends of spending fundamentally it's hard for them to back those trends.
Matt Hourihan: Yes. And that's the problem with this equilibrium that we've talked about the upside is that when things are going good, science tends to benefit sometimes more than other parts of the budget. But then we seem to have these periodic fiscal crunches, we had one back in 2010 as we were talking about. We've had them in previous times as well, there was one in the nineties, there was one in the early eighties. The kind of political equilibrium around science means that when spending comes down, all science comes down with it.
Matt Hourihan: But I'm not surprised by the way, to here that survey data regarding the career prospects for I think it was for PhDs you'd said, but a big chunk of the next generation of STEM worker postdocs and grad students, they rely on federal financial support. So when we have something like sequestration where every agency has to lose 5% of its budget or whatever, well, a lot of that's going to knock on to exactly those young researchers. It's really unfortunate, both in terms of the talent and the discouraged talent that we may have had over the past decade, as well as just the discoveries that we forgone that may have been helpful addressing any number of the national challenges that we've got today.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. There's an ethical aspect to science funding I believe, where if you accept the idea, I guess that science leads to ultimately a bettering of human condition, whether through medicine or through technology, or just through the pleasure of understanding the natural world in which we live. To lose or to under fund this endeavor, I think it actually has ethical implications to the nation and humanity at large. And I think it was kind of painful reading your article for that reason. But also I think you provided, it doesn't have to stay that way, we can grow back to where we were. And I think you said that the rate we'd have to start to grow is roughly 9.5%, is that right, per year?
Matt Hourihan: That's right. Yeah. Starting where we are and getting back to where that original trend line would have gotten us, would yes take about 9.5% a year. And again, the trend line is 5.7%. That's the trend line that I used and that's the historical average. So basically, to me a great kind of scenario would be spending at that 9.5% annual increase clip over the next five years, get us back to the circle trend line. And then kind of once we've hit reset in that, in a sense, then see how much we can beat that trend line by. I don't know that we have to increase spending 9.5% percent a year forever, that is a fair bit of money, but at the very least, getting us back to that original trend line, I think would be certainly worthwhile for the reasons we've talked about. But then once we're there, let's also still figure out how we can beat that historical trend line to meet these challenges.
Casey Dreier: I was trying to do kind of back of the envelope calculations, the most recent COVID bill that we just passed probably spent more than the NSF has ever spent in its history combined. Easily, I think it's roughly-
Matt Hourihan: Yeah. 900 billion was the most recent one. And the NSF budget today is 8 billion a year. So they've been around for what, 70 years.
Casey Dreier: Easily beaten. So I think we got the money. I think there's always the point that I try to make it. We have the money, science is not the driver of the debt nor the way to solve it. So as we wind down here and I encourage everyone... Again, I'll link to your article, it's on-
Matt Hourihan: Well, it might be, one way to.... Let me tweak what you just said, it might be one of the ways to solve it if we can drive it new innovations that create new industries. And address things like cures for Alzheimer's research or Alzheimer's disease I should say, the role that science can play in resolving our data issues is on its upside, not by cutting it.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. If Tim Berners-Lee had retained some ownership of the Worldwide Web protocol and gifted a portion of that to particle physics as thanks for developing it. I think, for example, we would easily have funded it, paid for itself. All [inaudible 01:10:13] particle physics, I guess we try to think about things in that way. I think there's a lot of promise and I hope as one of the things that we focus on the space side, but just more investment in science and R&D and that's what we're saying earlier that I don't think there's ever been a point where we can honestly say we've regretted that as a nation or anyone, any nation who invest in it. No one says that was a waste of money because it just... Fundamentally, even if you don't get a result you're looking for, you've paid people to pursue the scientific process, which is inherently a good process to support and the people doing it.
Casey Dreier: Well, we're wrapping up here. I wanted to ask what has kind of changed in your mental model or what have you had to change as you've done this or have you had to change any things about how you understand how this works and why it works? Or have you had any preexisting beliefs that you've had to revise based on the process of politics or doing this on a day to day basis?
Matt Hourihan: I'd been in, already been in DC for several years when I came with AAAS and I wasn't working on the budget, but I watched that process unfold and I don't know, I feel like I had a pretty good... It wasn't like I was particularly starry-eyed about how all this stuff gets done.
Casey Dreier: Mr. Smith comes to Washington.
Matt Hourihan: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Do you have any misunderstandings, public misconceptions that are really frustratingly persistent in your opinion about how the process of budget and science policy works? Something that really irritates you in terms of what you see people saying in the internet, for example.
Matt Hourihan: Yes. Let me think about this. There's a wealth of answers I could give you when it comes to the budget. There's two things I'd point to that kind of bug me a little bit. I understand the reasons why people hold these ideas completely, but they're pretty, but they still get to me. So one idea is the idea of the collapsing federal R&D budget overall, the disinvestment, that's a word I've heard used many times. The idea of disinvestment or collapsing R&D in pursuing that argument, pointing to some of the trendlines we've talked about. The idea that federal R&D was much higher in the space race, and it's lower that now it's collapsed. And that's all true, but the biggest driver, I think the issue for me is that the biggest driver of decline for federal R&D relative to GDP is not basic science.
Matt Hourihan: Federal funding for basic science actually peaked as a share of the economy in, I believe 2003 or 2004. There was a bit of a decline in the early eighties, I believe, but for the most part, federal basic science has grown. When people point to the decline in federal R&D that's actually driven by development, and a lot of that is to bring it all the way back to how we started declining spending for defense technology. A lot of the cold war technology acquisition that DOD used to do, they don't do it anymore at the same scale. So the biggest declines in federal R&D it's not the R it's the D but people that care about the R don't seem to recognize that what was lost from the 1970s is not the same thing as what many advocates are advocating for today.
Matt Hourihan: The kind of basic research, applied research, innovative, radical transformational technology type things. A lot of it again is on the defense side. So that's sort of one just pet peeve, I just think sometimes it's basically people point to that declining R&D and they call it basic science, it's not basic science. And I think it's just kind of people mislabeling or misusing the data and the trends in ways they should know better. So that's one, that's a complete budget walk pet peeve. So I'm probably the only one on the planet who feels that way. Then the other thing is just simply the fact there is a notion that Congress doesn't like research, doesn't like science, hates funding science. And I hope that over the course of this conversation, we've sort of illuminated why that's not really true.
Matt Hourihan: And actually Congress does often go to bat and many legislators go to bat for various parts of the research enterprise. And the fact that number one, non-defense R&D has been fairly stable within the non-defense budget. Number one, and number two, within that not defense R&D budgets, certain agencies like NIH, NSF have actually done better than others, many other non-science agencies hopefully is a testament to the fact that actually there is still a lot of support and a lot of bipartisan support in the Congress for funding R&D. And I think the experience of the Trump years should offer some additional evidence for that. And we just are coming off an administration that for four years tried their best to really gut big parts of the federal R&D enterprise.
Matt Hourihan: And Congress had none of it. Energy R&D, defense R&D, veterans, medical research, NIH and NASA and others, a lot of them did very, very well in the Trump years, in spite of what the Trump administration wanted. And that was true whether Democrats were running Congress or Republicans were running Congress. To be honest, I don't think Congress gets enough credit for trying to do what they can to take care of the research enterprise. It's never perfect and it's never as much as anybody would like, but they actually do try their best to ensure a level of research competitiveness. And I think they do deserve some credit for that.
Casey Dreier: Good hot take to end this discussion on. Matt Hourihan is the director of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Matt, thank you for having such a great wonky conversation about federal R&D budgets. It was great. Hope to have you back on sometime in the future.
Matt Hourihan: For sure. Thanks for having me. This was fun.
Mat Kaplan: Planetary Society, chief advocate, Casey Dreier, and his guest on this month's Space Policy Edition, Matt Hourihan. Casey, any closing comments or thoughts about that interview?
Casey Dreier: Well, if you like what Matt and I were talking about, you can find a lot of his work on the aaas.org/rd website. We'll link to that in our show notes. And he's on Twitter @Matthourihan, you can find occasional commentaries on budget and policy analysis there.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, I think we can leave it at that. I will just say that I look forward to seeing you and hopefully lots and lots of other people. The ticket sales are going well at Planetfest '21. Again, find out more about that, including Casey's session, and I'm hosting a few at planetary.org/planetfest21. You might want to become a member, get a break on your registration for Planetfest, planetary.org/membership. Casey, always a pleasure and I look forward to catching up with you. I hope that we can talk maybe before the March Space Policy Edition, and you can fill us in a little bit on the weekly Planetary Radio about those recommendations that are about to go to the Biden administration.
Casey Dreier: Happy to do so, Mat, and hopefully next episode, we'll start by celebrating a successful landing of Perseverance.
Mat Kaplan: Oh man. I know we all wish for that. Casey, thanks again very much. And I will see you soon.
Casey Dreier: See you Mat.
Mat Kaplan: That's Casey Dreier, senior space policy advisor, and chief advocate for The Planetary Society. I'm Mat Kaplan, I hope you will join us for the next weekly Planetary Radio, and I will be talking with Marc Hartzman. It's a great leading to Perseverance arriving if Mars, along with [inaudible 01:17:53]. Mark has written a book called The Big Book of Mars. It is great fun, and I expect it'll be a just as fun a conversation. For all of you out there, we look forward to joining you again in March for the next Space Policy Edition stay well and go Perseverance.