The Federal government has supported scientific advancement since Vice President Thomas Jefferson got Congress to fund Eli Whitney’s attempts to manufacture muskets with interchangeable parts. Whitney failed but government support for other continued until Sam Colt perfected it in the 1850’s.
The government has supported both practical and speculative science. The “space race” created a need for increasingly small electronics, and researchers working under government contract created the transistor and later the micro-chip. Fear of massive infrastructure disruption in the event of a nuclear attack led to government funded research into the development of a fragmented communication system called ARPANET, which was the earliest form of the internet.
But beginning in the late 1980’s the Federal government spent less and less on support for science. In the last 25 years government support has been cut by fully half. The results have been most obvious in publications in scientific literature. Research from the US used to dominate, but now researchers from the European Union are now producing nearly as many papers as US researchers. And while US funding has declined, government funding in other nations has climbed significantly. China’s R&D spending is growing at 20% a year.
The reality is that scientific research will continue, but the US will no longer dominate as it had in the past. The problem with this is that scientific research often (very often) leads to new technologies, new products, and new businesses. Most of the world seems to understand this, which is why other nations are increasing government supported research. But a few people don’t seem to get it. And unfortunately those people — conservative Republicans — have an outsized influence in the American government. They are clearly being penny wise (watching every penny) but pound foolish.
Government support for scientific research has been an important component of American economic growth and supremacy, and I find it frightening that Congressional Republicans are willing to turn their backs on that history.