Sen. John Sununu (R-NH), known as one of the biggest budget hawks on the Hill (in fact, he’s the highest ranked “taxpayers’ friend” in the Senate, according to the National Taxpayers Union) has his take on the current push for competitiveness legislation in today’s Washington Times. While it’s not surprising that he sees lots of “waste” when he looks at the competitiveness bills currently floating around the Senate, it’s encouraging that the essence of his Op-Ed is that the federal government’s real role in advancing competitiveness is in supporting fundamental research. Here’s a liberally-quoted bit from the piece (no pun intended):
As this debate moves forward, any legislation designed to promote American competitiveness and innovation should adhere to the following rules to ensure that American taxpayer dollars are not wasted or misused:
Focus on the basics. Federal funding for research and development should be applied toward basic science and technology, (such as chemistry, physics, material science and computational mathematics) rather than applied research, technology transfer or commercialization efforts. The private sector not the federal government has the obligation to advance the findings of basic research into marketable products and technologies. Equally troubling, legislators await the movement of a competitiveness bill in hopes they may attach pet research projects or fund a favored industry. Politicizing the process only undermines the integrity of peer review and dilutes the effectiveness of these resources. Don’t over-promise. To date, Senate competitiveness bills are littered with increased authorization levels for various purposes. Billions of dollars would be needed to actually fund programs at such inflated levels. Given this scenario, reasonable authorization levels must be utilized to ensure that funding can actually be secured through the appropriations process. It would not be beneficial to repeat an example from 2002, when Congress reauthorized the NSF with the goal of doubling its annual funding. Ultimately, NSF appropriations never approached such levels. Limit new programs. Like so many other sound-bite driven “debates” in Congress, competitiveness proposals often boil down to the usual simplistic solution: Create more government programs. How many times do we have to go down this same costly road? And when was the last time we dealt effectively with a complex problem by creating new federal programs? One Senate bill would create more than 20 new programs without eliminating a single one. Dozens already exist, including the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and other questionable expenditures of funds. Congress should not create new programs without a thorough review of the value and efficacy of existing programs. Otherwise, we are merely diverting funding to new programs and layers of bureaucracy when such money could be used on basic research. Make hard decisions. Once realistic authorization levels are established, Congress needs to make the necessary adjustments to ensure funding increases actually occur. Spending billions on a competitiveness agenda through deficit spending restricts future economic growth, and stunts future innovation and competitiveness. If we are to increase funding for a competitiveness agenda, legislation needs to include necessary rescissions and program repeals to remain budget neutral. Don’t play favorites. Given the popularity of a competitiveness initiative, it is disappointing that agencies integrally involved in basic research are being ignored. For instance, NASA’s basic science mission, referred to by many as its crown jewel, results in significant scientific findings. Ironically, the administration recently proposed that planned spending for these accounts be cut by more than $3 billion over the next few years, a decision NASA Administrator Michael Griffin admitted was made solely for budgetary reasons. How is this internally consistent for the administration?
If done for the right reasons, a successful plan to invest new resources in scientific research can have a positive impact. Without discipline and focus, however, Congress is doomed to repeat the same mistakes, fund more failed programs and expand federal bureaucracy.
America’s technology-driven economy grows despite, not because of, government intervention. That is a lesson we all need to learn before trying to “fix” what ails us.
While we could quibble with a lot of that — the difference between “basic” and “applied” research is often not so cut and dried as he implies, authorizing NSF’s doubling sent an important signal, etc — it’s hard to imagine getting a more favorable endorsement from a fiscal conservative of the portions of the ACI we care most about. It’s certainly a more thoughtful response to the President’s plan than a recent conservative think tank take, which ignored the R&D portion of the ACI completely….
Anyway, even if you disagree with the perspective, Sununu’s OpEd is worth reading.