The Most Important Thing American Government Does (Hint: It’s Not What You Think)

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What if I told you that in the last sixty years, the US government invented the modern world?  It’s true. Federally-funded scientific research led to most of the technology around us (that includes whatever you’re using to read this article).

But slowly, our investment in research has fallen dramatically.  That puts our future in jeopardy.

Ben Ritz, Director of the Progressive Policy Institute’s Center for Funding America’s Future, shared some of the incredible stories of what US government research has given us.  He believes that we can unlock tremendous growth and prosperity in the future if we start investing today.

Listen to the full conversation here:

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

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Matt Robison: What research are we talking about?

Ben Ritz:  The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of health, NASA, and the Department of Energy lead the non-defense research. That is about 86% of government-funded research. I should say though that Department of Defense work has also been incredibly important to the wider world.  For example, it led to the creation of the Internet.

Matt Robison: What’s happened to funding for science in recent decades?

Ben Ritz: Back in the 1960s, the federal government was spending roughly 1% of our gross domestic product on federally backed science. Now we’re at about a one third of that.

Matt Robison: Why is it so important for the US federal government specifically to do this?

Ben Ritz: The benefits have tremendous “spillover” effects. The person who spends the money is usually not the one who reaps the benefit.  That is especially true for basic research.  Most of the benefit comes decades in the future. The private sector just won’t do this kind of work, especially at the scale we need. They rely on the federal government for it.  Less than 7% of private sector R&D dollars are going towards basic research.  And that’s where the big, long-term payoff is.

Matt Robison:  When I was looking at this 20 years ago, the estimated rate of return – how much we get back from our investment – was between 28% and 117%.  Is that still true?

Ben Ritz: Yes, that’s the average. And that’s huge. But there’s some investments where the return is truly astronomical. For example, the human genome project is estimated to produce over a trillion dollars of global economic output.  That’s $178 for every $1 spent.

Matt Robison: What about the federal role in the mRNA technology that underlies the Covid vaccines?

Ben Ritz: That’s a textbook case of the how public sector research leads to private sector success and value for everyone.  NIH did a study years ago that looked into a failed vaccine trial from the 1960s.  Many, many steps later that led to the development of the protein that is being used in the mRNA vaccines.  So you’re talking about research from fifty plus years ago paying off to an almost incalculable degree today for Moderna and Pfizer.  And for all of us.

Matt Robison: And the research was focused on a failed trial – something that didn’t work.  That is not something the private sector would usually do.  Another classic example is the global positioning system, GPS. The science goes back to the 1930s when US government conducted basic research into the nature of the universe.  In the 1950s, more federal research produced precise atomic clocks. Scientists realized in 1957 that you could put satellites together with that atomic timekeeping to produce really accurate ground measurements.  Then it took another 16 years for the Department of Defense to support the concept.  Then it wasn’t until 1978 that we built the 24 GPS satellites for military use.  And it really wasn’t until around 2000 that we started to see the technology commercialized.

So researchers started basic work on this technology in the 1930s. The Department of Defense developed it at a taxpayer cost of $12 billion. And today, the private sector market size for GPS  applications will reach $146.4 billion by 2025.

Ben Ritz: Exactly. And it’s also important to note that only the government can look into the most basic science questions, especially the funny-sounding ones. A few years ago, some Republican Senators decided to publish a compendium of what they thought were wasteful government projects. One of them was what they derisively called the “shrimp flight club”: a study into the hunting patterns of mantis shrimp. And sure, it sounds dumb. But through that research, scientists found out about some of the protective material that shrimp have in their shells. Today, contractors are using it to develop stronger body armor for soldiers and better helmets for professional athletes.

That’s where investment in basic science leads.  The bottom line is that if we could even get back to investing even two thirds of a percent of GDP, around $150 billion, we could unlock incredible amounts of economic prosperity and well-being for our children and grandchildren.

We share edited excerpts from the Great Ideas podcast every week that explain how policies work and present innovative solutions for problems. Please subscribe, and to hear more amazing stories of how federal science has impacted our lives, check out the full episode on Apple, Spotify, Google, Anchor, Breaker, Pocket, RadioPublic, or Stitcher