Basic Research Needs Sustained Federal Investment, Says Norman Augustine

A federal capital budget for research and development might help reduce the swings in funding that plague research and development, the former Lockheed Martin CEO said at the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

Norman Augustine | AAAS/Carla Schaffer

While there is substantial evidence that citizens and policy-makers alike care about the results of scientific research, they too often fail to recognize that the everyday products of such research — cell phones, medical imaging devices, GPS receivers and the like — come from a sustained investment in basic research, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine told an audience at the 39th annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

With erratic federal spending on research and development, the challenge is to make choices that continue to pay off over the longer term, he said, noting that the United States suffers from a "policy defect" in which ends are not successfully aligned with means.

With a $4 trillion federal budget, he said, the issue isn't that "the United States cannot afford to invest in research in a substantial way," Augustine said. "Rather the issue is that we have to make choices. What is more important to us in the long term?"

Augustine spoke 1 May at the Forum, the premier gathering for those interested in the intersection of policy with science and technology.  In addition to his role at Lockheed Martin, Augustine held several key posts at the Department of Defense, has served on numerous advisory boards to federal agencies and served for 16 years on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

"One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a government in a democracy is to do those things that are in the interest of the general citizenry but which the private sector either can't or won't undertake."

Norman Augustine

The share of R&D funded by the federal government now puts the United States in 29th place among nations, Augustine noted. And there has been a history of what he called "saw-tooth budgeting" — funding increases in times of crisis followed by corresponding drops. The inconsistency, he said, results in "an inefficient way to run a government and an impossible way to run a reasonable science program."  

Yet the federal government's role in science research is essential, he said. "One of the most fundamental responsibilities of a government in a democracy is to do those things that are in the interest of the general citizenry but which the private sector either can't or won't undertake," Augustine said. Industry tends to focus on development — the application of scientific research for practical benefits-rather than the basic research pursued without regard to immediate payoff, he said.

And there can be financial disincentives in industry for taking the long view. Augustine recounted an episode when Lockheed Martin met in New York with a group of financial analysts to tell them about some promising research projects underway at the company. Lockheed Martin's stock fell 11 percent over the next four days. "What did we say that was wrong?" Augustine asked one on the analysts. The analyst explained that his firm did not invest in companies with programs that might not pay off for 10 or 15 years. With little sense of irony, the analyst called such a research philosophy "short-sighted management."

Other sources of research funding also can be fickle, Augustine said. Philanthropists may want to invest only in research that suits their individual agendas. And, public universities must often deal with state legislatures that have decided to sharply cut back funding for higher education.

Given the difference between spending for consumption and spending for investment, Augustine called for a federal capital budget for research and development, much as states have capital budgets for highways and other long-term infrastructure improvements or companies have capital budgets for major equipment purchases. Such budgeting would help reduce the swings in funding that plague R&D, he said.

Augustine also said scientists need to do a better job of selling themselves and the value of their work. The public too often looks at scientists as people "in white smocks in the back of the laboratory trying to get their research published," he said.

And yet basic research is at the heart of economic growth, driving many of the practical engineering advances that benefit society, he said, with "very little that engineers can provide to humanity that doesn't have its basis in science, including curiosity-driven science."

The United States is unlikely to suffer from a shortage of scientists, Augustine said, because most of what they do that is funded by American companies can readily be moved abroad.  The problem is that the resulting economic impact will then also be abroad, he said.  American particle physicists already must travel to CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, to do cutting-edge experiments on the nature of matter. And many Fortune 100 firms are already siting major research facilities abroad, he said.

When making their case to policy-makers for R&D spending, scientists should stress the impact their work can have on job growth, Augustine said. "That is an effective argument," he said. Attractive as it may be to note the intellectual value of understanding the Big Bang theory, "That simply doesn't sell to people drowning in budget deficits."