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Obama, Romney, and the U.S. R&D Complex

The candidates aren’t saying much about their plans for the nation’s R&D enterprise, but they need to—and fast

6 min read
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Photo: Left: Ron Sachs/Bloomberg/Getty Images; Right: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

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The two major-party presidential candidates, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, say little about how the United States forges policies and practices around its vast R&D enterprise. Their inattention is peculiar given that the federal government spends US $140 billion on it annually. For Obama and Romney, the way forward is to spend more money on more ambitious R&D projects and in ways that relate only loosely to meeting national needs.

The more-is-better approach contributes to a troubling disconnect between research capacity (plenty) and beneficial outcomes from research (far fewer). Yet efforts to persuade the candidates to devote a presidential debate to the subject of getting more value for money from R&D seems doomed, since no such debate has ever occurred in U.S. history. Given the central role of publicly funded R&D in the United States’ future, might each candidate at least agree to read a short book on the subject?

book cover, the moon and the ghetto

The Moon and the Ghetto

They could hardly do better than to begin with Richard R. Nelson’s brief classic The Moon and the Ghetto.

First published in 1977, The Moon and the Ghetto poses a deceptively simple question, which (updated) goes like this: If government wizards can create drones that track and kill shadowy individuals, why is it that the same big brains, even when amply funded, can’t create better schools, fewer traffic jams, more cures for diseases, cheaper energy, and any number of other “moon shots” that would solve urgent needs of ordinary Americans?

When Nelson wrote The Moon and the Ghetto 35 years ago, the U.S. government had recently landed men on the moon but had failed to win the symbolic wars on poverty and cancer, or the actual war in Southeast Asia.

Of course, scientists and engineers don’t guarantee winning outcomes, and even when they get them, the outcomes often can’t be predicted—or translated into equal benefits to all citizens. That’s why Nelson, an economist at Columbia University with a rare grasp of the politics of R&D, highlights the importance of reforming organizational structure. He argues that “the most fundamental R&D policy questions” are not scientific or technical but managerial and organizational.

The “key issue,” Nelson insists, is “the way in which a research program ought to be managed and organized.” He emphasizes the benefits to be gained from assuming what he calls “the organizational perspective.” His view contrasts sharply with the conventional wisdom that only budgets and overall objectives matter in R&D.

One direct outcome of the Nelsonian way of thinking is to raise the importance of creating organizational tools for harnessing the role of competition within federal R&D enterprises. Historically, government R&D is based on notions of monopoly. NASA, for instance, was given the exclusive preserve over space exploration, and only recently has the agency relinquished some of its control to private actors. The effects of monopoly are mixed. While certain R&D activities are naturally the preserve of government, without the ameliorative effects of competition, poor outcomes often become the norm.

Even within a monopolistic framework, however, beneficial forces of competition can be exploited through organizational innovations. As my research colleague at the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, Sybil Francis, has found in her studies of the nation’s two nuclear weapons design labs, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory, the competition between them stimulated innovation and productivity. Duplication, meanwhile, was reduced because the labs carved out relatively distinct spheres of expertise, and the threat that their military customers, mainly the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy, might choose the designs of one lab over the other acted as a form of market discipline. Failing research programs, in short, could not survive forever.

Similarly, the Human Genome Project, although a government monopoly when formally launched in 1990, greatly benefited from the organizational innovation of sanctioning a second research team, led by Craig Venter. The “controlled competition” between the two sped progress toward shared goals and improved the public debate over the value and implications of the research.

Recently, the U.S. federal government has tried another management tactic to undercut monopolistic R&D by encouraging agencies to promote contests or prizes for innovations. Government-sponsored prizes and challenges—now focused on external innovators—raise some intriguing possibilities for organizational reformers. Can the prize mechanism stimulate internal competition within the federal R&D enterprise? Might scientists and engineers employed by federal labs or NASA, or funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the U.S. Department of Defense, compete in prize competitions?

While the long-term effectiveness of the prize model remains unproven, the movement provides further evidence of the growing interest in organizational approaches to improving R&D outcomes, especially in such notoriously difficult areas as education, energy, and health.

Which brings us back to the presidential candidates. Romney and Obama can gain from Nelson’s insights about how organizational structure and behavior can trump research budgets and goals, if only to avoid some of the common problems of R&D politics. These problems arise from the naive advocacy of “moon shots” and other grand research goals over deeper thinking about how to repurpose existing R&D organizations to meet new conditions. Many federal R&D agencies are more than 50 years old, after all, and even effective organizations outlive their usefulness.

By applying Nelson’s concepts, the next president of the United States can be better equipped to tackle the urgent task of reinventing tired, bloated R&D agencies. Consider one important case. The NIH, which spends about $30 billion a year, largely on basic science and biomedical engineering, has dozens of research centers organized around diseases, rather than delivering improved health-care services. These institutes contain many redundancies, and their work is often far removed from the ultimate end users of their work—hospitals, doctors, and patients. Moreover, the ultimate funders of health care—the U.S. government’s Medicare program, insurance companies, and individual consumers—have essentially no connection to the NIH’s research activities.

Critics of the NIH think radical reorganization is required, and this will demand presidential leadership. The same tonic is needed to dramatically improve the societal outcomes of the scientific labs run by the U.S. Department of Energy. Despite decades of small changes, these labs bear the indelible stamp of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. The next U.S. president could demand the consolidation of these labs and research goals and structures that reflect 21st-century needs and realities.

To be sure, Richard Nelson admits that reforming federal R&D organizations is a humbling endeavor. Like other bureaucracies, R&D agencies seek to perpetuate their legacy behaviors and often become, as he observes in The Moon and the Ghetto , “a powerful lobbyist of new technology for its own sake,” not for the public’s benefit. “Controlling an independent R&D organization may be as difficult as designing it,” Nelson adds.

Instead, the NIH delivers a stream of “breakthroughs” that explain the origins of diseases but fail to improve everyday treatments. Running seemingly endless science experiments, the NIH fails to organize around health outcomes, which it could do by bringing scientists closer to the ultimate consumer of federal largesse—the recipients of Medicare and Medicaid, whose medical costs are creeping toward a trillion dollars a year.

To serve the needs of the American patient requires a reorganization of the NIH that would also overcome the bureaucratic logic that routinely defeats reformers. To break out of the vicious cycle of self-interested R&D, bureaucracies require outstanding leadership—from the top.

How Romney and Obama differ on R&D spending would be good for voters to know, of course. But even more important for voters is that the two candidates possess a genuine basis for leadership of innovation in the first place. The Moon and the Ghetto is a great place for the candidates to begin to remedy their crucial shared deficit.

A version of this article ran as Spectral Lines in the October 2012 print edition of IEEE Spectrum.

About the Author

Photo of G. Pascal Zachary

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University. He is the author of Showstopper!: The Breakneck Pace to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft (The Free Press, 1994), on the making of a Microsoft Windows program, and Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (The Free Press, 1997), which received IEEE’s first literary award. Zachary reported on Silicon Valley for The Wall Street Journal in the 1990s; for The New York Times, he launched the Ping column on innovation in 2007. The Scientific Estate is made possible through the support of Arizona State University and IEEE Spectrum.

For Further Reading

Don K. Price, The Scientific Estate(1965, Belknap Press): A clear, compelling case for why researchers deserve a measure of self-governance.

Daniel S. Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science (1967, The University of Chicago Press): A classic study of how scientific and technological institutions got captured by self-serving special interests.

Bruce L.R. Smith, The Advisers: Scientists in the Policy Process(1992, Brookings Institution):A solid introduction to why providing science advice to the president is ultimately a political task.

Daniel R. Sarewitz, Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology and the Politics of Progress (1996, Temple University Press): An incisive and compelling argument for forging closer ties between the interests of ordinary people and progress in R&D.

G. Pascal Zachary, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century(1997, Free Press):A biographical study of Vannevar Bush, America’s first presidential science advisor; provides a detailed account of how this electrical engineer wielded immense political power, largely behind the scenes, at crucial moments in World War II.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl(2009, Night Shade Books): Perhaps the most perspicacious of the recent novels on the complex challenges presented by the near future; while there’s no perfect preparation for grappling with the unknown, the next U.S. president would be wise to resist fighting the last technological battles and pay attention to the peculiar interactions between bioengineering, genetically modified foods, robotics, energy depletion, and geopolitics.

Richard R. Nelson, “The Moon and the Ghetto Revisited” (2011): In this essay in the journal Science and Public Policy, Nelson reprises his central concern about the “uneven performance” of R&D outcomes and notes that the problem is not limited to the United States but has “plagued virtually all high income countries.”


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