On the shoulders of giants
In his 1962 address at Rice University on the nation’s fledgling space program, President John F. Kennedy famously said: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win … ”
The leadership and rhetorical skill of JFK inspired a critical decade for government funded R&D, as well as public-private research partnerships. Apparently, it worked. In 1962 the U.S. had only begun to send astronauts into low Earth orbit. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. A phenomenal achievement and testament to focused, purpose-driven research and development.
Some five decades later, a private space company launches resupply rockets to the International Space Station; Moore’s Law now makes possible pocket-sized computing power far surpassing the room-sized computers that guided Eagle to its 1969 moon landing; and nearly the sum total of human knowledge is instantaneously available through a global communications network.
Arguably, none of these technologies would exist today were it not for the inspirational fire Kennedy lit on that warm September day in 1962. But we also confront a host of interconnected social and environmental challenges; “wicked problems” that defy simple or straightforward solutions.
In many ways these wicked problems are a consequence of our own ingenuity. The innovation that brought about the technology we now take for granted is part of the solution for these wicked problems – and part of the problem itself.
Funding research and development
You get what you pay for, or what you get depends on who pays for it
Government spending on R&D as a percentage GDP peaked at 2.9 percent in 1964. More than 60 percent of all R&D expenditures were funded by federal government coffers. In the decades since then, that balance of R&D spending flipped. In Q1 2015, only 0.8 percent of GDP went for R&D.
Corporate R&D funding now represents 65 percent of all expenditures, a flip from how it was in the 1960s. Depending on who you ask, this is either a good thing or the death of science as we know it, reflecting the complexities of research and development.
On the one hand, the shifting balance of R&D funding toward industry helps bring new technologies to market quicker. Applied and developmental research hastens the conversion of knowledge into useful products, creates jobs and economic growth, and gives investors a return on their investment.
On the other hand, the declining share of federal funds for basic research has far-reaching consequences for the kind of wicked problems closing in around us. A 2015 MIT report titled The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a US Innovation Deficit warns of an “investment gap” in basic research. Marc Kastner, who chaired the committee that wrote the report, notes that science funding in the U.S. is “the lowest it has been since the Second World War as a fraction of the federal budget.” In 1968, 10 percent of the federal budget was allocated to basic research. By 2015 it had dropped to 4 percent. Kastner contents this sharp decline poses serious threats to the nation’s future.
The MIT report outlines 15 case studies where important research suffers from lack to adequate funding, including neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, infectious disease, robotics, and cyber security.
Contrast this with the 19 billion Facebook spent to acquire WhatsApp. Corporate acquisitions of tech startups can bring products to market quickly, but many argue at the expense of basic research and science. R&D begins to look more like M&A, or corporate venturing.
The economics of acquiring in-process R&D, maintaining a return for shareholders and meeting consumer demand, dictate where and how corporate R&D funds get spent.
The economics of R&D
Finding the next killer app
Applied research and development can push forward a new energy economy, improve the standard of living for tens of millions of people, and help put humanity on a path to sustainability. But it is in basic research, where the payoff is uncertain and the horizon for marketability is far in the future, that makes possible the next “killer app.”
Private funding of R&D, both philanthropic and corporate, is vital for converting new knowledge into benefits for society. The role of the private sector in research and development is implied in many of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These are the wicked problems that we hope to solve. That we must solve.
Behind the shifting balance of R&D funding in the U.S. is perhaps the most vexing issue of all: a narrative of disdain for science, inside and outside the beltway, and the need for a renewed public-private partnership in research and development.
In the end, R&D is a multistakeholder, interdisciplinary, and collaborative endeavor. Funding R&D has shifted dramatically since the days of Apollo, when government and industry made a grand partnership to put a man on the moon. Can we do that again? That’s how we solve the wicked problems.
Image credit: Wikimedia