You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

March 01, 2011

Spending? or Investing?

By: Aaron Datesman

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in my current job is that, although the US government spends around $100 billion annually on scientific research, nobody can convincingly answer the following simple question: What’s the return on this investment? When scientists do hear this question, the approved response generally includes Tang, a few technical touchstones that most laymen have never thought about, and a reminder that science can make things blow up real good. And that’s kind of about been it.

This blew my mind when I first learned it, and I still find it incredible. So I think it’s positive that the government is busy building tools with which to answer this question. I was fortunate to witness this busy-ness firsthand at a workshop this past December.

In addition to a stunningly excellent set of remarks from Rep. Rush Holt (which are archived and which I will post), I learned a couple of very interesting things at the workshop. By far the most interesting thing I learned is discussed in this workshop paper from Prof. Julian Alston of UC-Davis.

Prof. Alston is an agricultural economist. I was surprised to learn that, compared to other areas of economics, technology, science, and policy, agricultural data is detailed, robust, and exhaustively studied. Therefore the results of Prof. Alston’s meta-study of Research, Development, and Extension investment in the agricultural sector has very significant implications for the value of research investment in other sectors as well. This is his conclusion (but I encourage you to read the whole thing – it’s not highly technical).

U.S. public agricultural R&D has earned very high returns, with benefit-cost ratios in the range of 20:1 and higher.

In plain terms, the benefits of $1 of government spending on agricultural R&D today are worth $20 in today’s money (the calculation refers to the net present value of future benefits which would accrue).

Remember this the next time you have a conversation with someone - and that somebody just might be a well-meaning liberal - who wants you to believe that the US government just has to cut spending.

— Aaron Datesman

Posted at March 1, 2011 10:29 PM

You seem to dancing around a crying need - for scientists to give up some of their own.

Its well-accepted around these parts that bankers ought to, and Congress ought to, and the military ought to ... come clean on who amongst them are just on the gravy train.

But scientists? dissed in the saner parts of the blogosphere? no. does not happen

Over Christmas I ended up in a argument with an in-law, a very connected oceanographer. I had over wine, when science was being discussed, dissed the Big Bang theory/the LHC/the Higgs boson. And was shocked to see that the man fought me like nobody's business. He could not stand to see science mocked.

Later he admitted he had agreed with what I said!

but he did not seem to get his own obstinacy. It was obvious to me he had an internal moat in his head, behind which were the scientists, and he was -by golly- going to defend the particle physicists (and their funding) simply because he was scientist and was funded as well.

not that the Big Bang doctrine is the worst of it. But picking out a not corrupt science like agricultural science (or oceanography for that matter) is a bit misleading.

You should defends the $AIDS hacks.. that would be funny

Posted by: Henry at March 1, 2011 11:04 PM

Nice post, Aaron. When I saw that figure on scientific R&D spending, I had to compare it to something, and found that were our government's annual $100B expenditure on scientific R&D measured as GDP, it would come in as the world's 59th largest, just under that of Vietnam.

I think that things like agricultural R&D benefit from having plenty of opportunities to benchmark ROI. I suspect other branches of science do not, but that's besides the point. Personally, I feel that a measure of our greatness as a nation is the degree to which we contribute to a body of knowledge that all of humanity might benefit from. $100B on scientific R&D? Hell, yes. Let's shoot for $200B.

To those who fret over government spending, let me point out that the single largest bloc of dollars spent by our government is currently on delivering halth care of one kind or another. Even our defense spending quails before it. When we look at cutting things like scientific R&D, which might look like small potatoes next to the larger expenditures, we lose sight of how those big expenditures got so big in the first place. Maybe the manner in which we spend *that* money should be considered first when imposing austerity upon ourselves.

Posted by: Bill Coffin at March 1, 2011 11:06 PM

Professor Alston tells us about the wonders of frankenfood research! And the wonders of Monsanto, the company most responsible for the suicides of tens of thousands of Indian farmers! ROI? I bet the relatives of the dead farmers see it that way. And if Americans enjoy (almost) the lowest life expectancy in the Western world, they can partly blame it on the high returns of US agricultural R&D. But back to Professor Alston:


In July 2002, UC Davis farm economics professor Julian Alston found a patron in the private sector: Monsanto, one of the world's five largest crop biotechnology firms.

The official announcement came in the form of a letter. “Dear Dr. Alston,” it read. “Please find enclosed a check for $40,000 that represents an unrestricted gift in support of your research program.” ....

When Alston's report came out a year later in a biotech online journal, its findings were favorable to Monsanto.

Alston said the Monsanto money did not influence his analysis. “I am going to report my findings whatever they are, regardless of the source of funds,” he said.


But it's OK because Professor Alston says he's not a corrupt asshole.

Posted by: isthatso at March 2, 2011 01:02 AM

@isthatso - I agree that Monsanto is very evil; I've written to that effect in this forum. And it occurred to me, when I heard Alston deliver this talk, that some or many of the advancements he was describing related to industrial agricultural practices and genetic modification of organisms. These are technical approaches which I believe are harmful and should be restricted.

However, the agricultural dataset upon which his analysis is based goes back to about 1850. This is a long time before the evil stuff came on the scene. So don't dismiss the conclusion out of hand.

In any event, your point (while correct) is irrelevant to the message of the post: there are many areas in which the government could invest today which would immediately make us more wealthy. Since that's the case, talking about cutting the budget is just arguing about making ourselves poorer.

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 2, 2011 07:27 AM

Uh, strange attitudes towards science here. The $30 billion NIH budget comes attached to a pretty specific mission statement. Getting a slice of that money for research requires grant proposals that directly address human health. It's difficult to attach monetary value to the results, but they can be quantified quite nicely, and include achievements that are greater even than the invention of Tang.

Of course, this gets me into the territory of "$AIDS hacks", which I suppose includes anyone who agrees with the overwhelming scientific consensus. And seriously, debating the Higgs boson and Big Bang with an oceanographer is like debating Sumerian history with a taxi driver. You may enjoy it, but you shouldn't feel too macho if he agrees with you afterwards.

It's all okay though, in a couple decades the US will lose its role as the preeminent nation for scientific research, then it won't matter much what we do. Smart American students will go to China or India to study science, and probably stay there to work. China will get evidence-based medicine and high tech, and the U.S. will "heal" people by handling snakes and casting out demons. Everyone wins!

Posted by: a postdoc at March 2, 2011 07:50 AM

postdoc -

Thanks for that document. Actually it reinforces my point that nobody really knows the rate of return. On page 9 it says that "econometric models show .... rates of return on basic R&D investment of between 20-40%" (paraphrase), but it doesn't even offer a footnote saying who published that result.

I have also heard the number quoted as 28%, from somebody who knew the citation. This probably belongs in the post as well. Otherwise, I think the NIH document accords with my point - it argues for NIH funding by anecdote, and there is not much substantiated data about rate of return of investment.

About some of your other points, I agree. I am tetchy about the Big Bang, since it is an area in which I have performed research.....

Posted by: Aaron Datesman at March 2, 2011 09:22 AM

Tang alone justifies it for me.

Agree with your larger point, postdoc, but as somebody who's 20 years into an extremely debilitating chronic illness triggered by antibiotics, I'd have been much better off going to a faith healer.

If you think Western "evidence-based medicine" is anywhere near a comprehensive understanding of health and disease, I am happy for you, because it means you've been fortunate enough to stay within terra cognita, health-wise. But in your certainty spare a thought for those less fortunate; quackery may be fake, but the misery it feeds upon is real.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at March 2, 2011 01:01 PM

To get those rates of return SCIENCE needs to get cracking on a SMART PILL FOR CONGRESS. The need IS so great as to be desperate. (I recomend goat turds as a primary resourse for study)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at March 2, 2011 02:04 PM

Your post on this blog is the fruit of govt R&D. Computers, the internet, etc. - none of it would have existed without it.

Posted by: Liebchen at March 2, 2011 05:45 PM

If people have non-trollish questions about "Big Bang theory", Starts with a Bang gives a version that I don't recall seeing in the media.

Posted by: hf at March 6, 2011 10:45 PM