NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Research Investments Are Frequently Fruitless

February 13, 2013

For all the meritorious research the government funds, federal research and development expenditures are riddled with wasteful projects. The rationale for government funding of research holds that only the government can make such sizeable investments and that the results yield intellectual property available to all, says Henry I. Miller, the Robert Wesson fellow in scientific philosophy and public policy at the Hoover Institution.

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) is a major driver of American science research, with an annual budget of more than $7 billion dollars that funds roughly 20 percent of all federally-supported basic research in U.S. institutions of higher learning.
  • Miller cites Senator Tom Coburn's report that identifies trivial research projects like how to ride a bike, when dogs became man's best friend, whether parents choose trendy baby names and why the same teams always seem to dominate the NCAA basketball playoffs, all of which receive federal funding.

The NSF is not the only agency that frequently squanders taxpayer funds on pointless endeavors.

  • The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) also wastes large sums, as does the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA).
  • Indeed, NIFA spends $4 million a year on to assess the risk of genetically engineered organisms. The results NIFA has produced indicate their efforts have been pointless.

NIFA pales in comparison to "the master of waste, fraud and abuse" -- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which controls an annual research budget of more than $800 million. Miller notes that a large portion of EPA research funds are spent on public relations and diverted to nonprofit organizations without any oversight.

The real problem with wasteful research funding is the opportunity cost of those funds. For every dollar that is spent on an irrelevant study, that is one dollar that could have been ushered towards the next big scientific discovery.

Source: Henry I. Miller, "Investing in Bad Science," Hoover Institution, February 1, 2013.


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