Science Funding in the United States Research Paper

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The pursuit of knowledge has historically been shaped by patronage relationships. The earliest scientists were astronomers and mathematicians supported at ancient courts in the Middle East and China. In Renaissance Europe, observers of and experimenters with nature had patrons in the aristocracy or royal families. In nineteenth century America, industrial philanthropists took up their cause.

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Since World War II, research in the United States has received its support largely from government, with help from industry and private foundations. This research paper focuses on the postwar history of government funding for research in the United States. That history has been characterized by a creative tension between autonomy and accountability, embodied in successive waves of invention of new institutional arrangements. Should science set its own agenda, or should it answer to the public? Could the two goals be reconciled? These issues have echoed through five decades of research policy.

1. Autonomy For Prosperity

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the US federal government funded research only if it was applied directly to practical goals. The earliest federal efforts were in surveying and geological exploration, activities that contributed both to nation-building and to the search for mineral wealth. A second major wave of federal effort in the latter half of the nineteenth century took up agricultural research in partnership with the States, through land grant colleges and agricultural experiment stations. Scientists were also brought in to solve the immediate problems of wartime. World War I was known as ‘the chemists’ war,’ because of the use of chemical warfare agents. World War II became ‘the physicists’ war,’ with the invention of the atomic bomb. And in the 1930s, a small federal laboratory for health research was established, which later became the National Institutes of Health, the nation’s research arm for biomedical sciences (Dupree 1964, Kevles 1978, Strickland 1989).

By the time of World War II, these efforts had grown into a set of research programs in mission agencies, focused on food, health, and defense. These activities were carried out largely in government laboratories, and were focused on immediate, practical goals. In later decades, two other agencies joined this group. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) was formed in response to the launching of a Russian satellite, the Sputnik, in 1957 (Logsdon 2000). And the Department of Energy, when it was established in the 1970s, incorporated major research elements, including the high-energy physics laboratories. This array of government research efforts continues to anchor the mission-oriented portion of a pluralistic system of funding for US research.

The other dimension of that system is fundamental research. It is anchored in universities, and interwoven with graduate education and the preparation of new generations of researchers. This second dimension has its origins in moments of national crisis, when government research efforts were expanded temporarily through the cooptation of university researchers. After such an interlude in World War I, influential US scientists tried to convince the federal government to keep the research relationship with universities going, but to no avail. It was only after the success of the crucial atomic bomb project that the achievements of science carried enough weight to make credible proposals for permanent, across-the-board government support for research (Kevles 1978).

The spokesperson for this plan was Vannevar Bush, a university scientist who had been active in the government projects around the war. He called for the formation of a National Research Foundation, to provide basic support for research, without the specific targets that had been imposed during the war. He argued that unfettered research, carried out largely in universities, would build a base of human and knowledge resources that would help solve problems across the range of challenges in health, defense, and the economy (Bush 1990 [1945]).

Science Funding in the United States Research Paper Figure 1

But to make these contributions, researchers needed freedom—both freedom in the laboratory to choose and pursue research problems, and organizational freedom at the level of government agencies, to set the larger research agenda in directions that were free from political control. Bush’s model of the relationship between science and society has been called the ‘autonomy for prosperity’ model (Cozzens 2001). Most of the experimentation over the next few decades with ways to maintain autonomy while being useful took the form of add-ons to this model.

Bush’s model built a protective shell of organizational autonomy around the agencies that provided funds for basic research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), both of which grew very fast in the postwar period, developed strategies that insulated direct decisions around research from the political context. One funding mechanism that embodied the essence of the autonomy-for-prosperity model in its early days was the science development program. Under these programs in the 1950s and 1960s, federal block grants allowed universities to build their educational and research capacities, with very few strings attached (Drew 1985). The second strategy was the project grant/peer review system of funding. Under this mechanism, the government hands over choice of research topics as well as the judgment of what is to count as quality into the hands of researchers. ‘Peer review’ for project selection became both the major form of quality control in the federal funding system and an important symbol of scientific freedom (Chubin and Hackett 1990).

Ironically, the autonomy-protecting institutional shell that Bush and his successors designed undermined the practical effectiveness that had won credibility for his plan to start with. As government funding for research grew rapidly in the 1950s, beyond the scale of Vannevar Bush’s wildest dreams, the institutional shell unintentionally created a protected space where new researchers could do their work without any grounding in the practical problems of the world. As soon as the practical grounding was lost, a gap was created between science and society that needed to be bridged if autonomy was really going to be turned into prosperity.

2. Knowledge Transfer And Knowledge Mandating

Among the first set of funding methods developed to bridge this gap were knowledge transfer mechanisms. Knowledge transfer mechanisms do not threaten either laboratory or organizational autonomy, because they leave the protective shell in place while focusing on diffusing or disseminating research-based knowledge. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, many federal programs addressed the ‘information explosion’ with ‘science information services,’ under the rubric of ‘information policy.’ The government encouraged first journals, then abstracting and indexing services, to provide access to the exploding journal literature, and later added extension services. The emphasis was on providing infrastructure for communication, not shaping its content; science was to speak to the public, not with it. These mechanisms protect research autonomy by segmenting knowledge processes over time.

As the size of the research enterprise continued to grow, however, the pendulum swung back and the accountability issue inevitably arose. Elected representatives of the public asked ‘What are we getting for all this spending?’ In the absence of specific answers, a backlash eventually appeared. Policymakers began to demand that research solve societal problems directly, rather than through the diffuse claim of ‘autonomy for prosperity.’ In 1969, for example, Congress passed ‘the Mansfield amendment,’ limiting support from the Department of Defense to goal-directed research. The Nixon administration phased out science development programs. And in the 1970s, several ‘knowledge mandating’ programs appeared. At NSF, for example, the Program of Research Applied to National Needs (RANN) grew out of a Presidential concern about ‘too much research being done for the sake of research.’ (Mogee 1973). At NIH, the ‘War on Cancer’ emerged during the same period (Strickland 1989, Rettig 1977).

In their more programmed forms, such programs threatened both individual and organizational autonomy. But even in softer forms, in which money was only redirected from one priority to another, they still threatened organizational autonomy, since external forces were dictating research directions. There is an important lesson in the history of these programs: over time, organizational autonomy won out over societal knowledge mandating. RANN was abolished, and over the years, both NSF and NIH have found ways to look programmatic without doing central planning.

3. Knowledge Sharing

By the mid-1970s, a third approach began to be developed in the United States to bridge the gap between the science produced inside the protective institutional shell and the problems of the world surrounding it. This new form threatened neither the individual autonomy of researchers nor the organizational autonomy of funding organizations. This new form can be called ‘knowledge-sharing.’

This approach first took the form of an emphasis on partnerships, and within that emphasis, an early focus on partnerships with industry. New centers involved industry partners in setting strategic plans. The interchange of people and information became the rule. The critical element in these was a two-way dialog, which replaced the one-way science-to-society diffusion of information of knowledge transfer and the one-way society-to-science mechanism of knowledge mandating. In the two-way dialog, scientists became strategic thinkers, able to formulate their own problems creatively, but steeped again, as in the 1950s, in the problems articulated by some external set of partners. Another new element was the explicit link to education, at both graduate and undergraduate levels. The Engineering Research Centers of the NFS, for example, were intended to produce a ‘new breed’ of engineers, better prepared than previous generations to participate in R&D in industry because they understood the needs and culture of industry.

This new partnership model raised questions: Was knowledge mandating being changed from a public function to a private one under this scheme? A change in the law that allowed universities to hold intellectual property rights in results produced under government grants further heightened these concerns. Public knowledge seemed to be on a path to privatization. At the same time, several well-publicized instances of accusations of fraud in science seemed to undermine the trusting relationships among citizens, government, and science (Guston 1999).

In the late 1980s, however, a second crucial step in the development of the partnership model took place. This was a step back toward the public. Centers were urged to form partnerships, not only with industry, but also with State and local governments, citizen groups, and schools. The benefits that industry gained from earlier collaborations were now available to other parts of society, in a new pattern that has been called ‘partner pluralism’ (Cozzens 2001). Strategic plans began to be shaped by two-way dialog across many sectors, and the education of a new breed of researcher able to bridge the cultures of university, school, and public service sector began.

Another manifestation of knowledge-sharing and an attempt to restore public trust arrived with a round of attention among researchers to public awareness of science and science education. The 1990s heard a new note in the discussions of the public among science leaders. Research leaders stressed that scientists need to learn more about the public, as well as the public learning more about science. Even the venerable National Academy of Sciences recommended that the institutions of science open their doors to the public, urging, for example, that NIH take more advice from the public in priority-setting. These were signs of the beginning of a two-way dialog.

4. The Knowledge Society

As US research entered the twenty-first century, many believed that knowledge is the key resource in the new economy. For a society to be innovative, however, its creative capacity must be widely shared. This goal will not be achieved unless its scientists become strategic thinkers steeped in society’s problems and issues, and government funding agencies remain public through partner pluralism. Accountability for research in the knowledge society is achieved through the engagement of many societal actors in the research enterprise. By placing many actors on an equal footing and encouraging two-way dialog, research policy in the twenty-first century will help stimulate shared creativity, and open a new path to prosperity.


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