Charles Krauthammer notes that only 30 percent of basic scientific research is funded by government today, as compared with 60 percent in the past. He notes, correctly, that this is not a sign of decline but of progress:
Some are alarmed that government R&D funding has fallen from a 60 percent to a 30 percent share of total funding. So what? Does government necessarily make wiser investment decisions than private companies? The mistake of the Soviets, Japanese, and so many others was to assume that creativity could be achieved with enough government planning and funding. But the very essence of creativity is spontaneity. A society's creativity is directly proportionate to the rate of free interaction of people and ideas in a vast unplanned national chemical reaction. There is no country anywhere more given to the unencumbered, unfettered, unregulated exchange of ideas than the U.S.
Let me share with you readers an idea I've had about scientific research and ask for your comments and help, since this is an area in which my knowledge is very far from complete and I suspect that some of you will know far more about it than I do. My idea is this: In the first couple of decades after World War II, the government took the lead in scientific research, but in the last couple of decades the lead has been taken over by the private sector.
The great impetus behind government research was defense spending. The Manhattan Project consumed, secretly, a significant percentage of gross national product during World War II and produced not only the atomic bomb but also civilian nuclear energy. Defense spending drove the development of jet aircraft and rockets. Up through the 1970s, the Defense Department produced in rapid succession generations of weapons systems at the cutting edge of technology. And the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency invented the Internet (with a little help from Al Gore, who as a young congressman did in fact take a helpful interest in the project).
But who drives technology now? The private sector. Government procurement rules require such a long lead time that new systems cannot be completed before their technology has been surpassed. The Pentagon has been developing the F-22 for something like 20 years far longer than the development of new planes in the post-WWII decades. The Internal Revenue Service and the FAA have had to abandon computerization projects as unworkable, with hundreds of millions of dollars simply lost. Col. Jack Warden, who helped design the air strategy in the Gulf War, told me that the Air Force developed precision bombing techniques in the 1990s not by going through the procurement process to buy new weapons but by buying GPS devices at places like Radio Shack and attaching them to airplanes, including the B-52, which started flying in the 1950s.
Meanwhile, the private sector has been developing computer software and biotech transformation at the speed of Moore's law. The government effort to read the DNA code was hastened by private-sector competition from Craig Ventner. The government recently doubled spending on basic research at NIH a worthy project, I think. But we've also witnessed rapid development of useful drugs by the private-sector pharmaceutical industry though there's a danger that government in the form of the FDA and the trashing of the pharmaceuticals' business model may be slowing that down unduly.
As I said, my knowledge in this area is very incomplete. I'd be interested in comments from readers who know more than I do, including those who think my idea is wrong. I'd like to post some interesting responses.