The Budget Blueprint: A Physicist’s Perspective

This blog focuses on my take on current events as a young condensed matter physicist. Welcome!

Last Thursday, the Trump administration put out their budget blueprint. Before delving into the details, I feel compelled to remind the reader that this budget blueprint is not final. This budget proposal still needs to go to the budget committees in the House and Senate, which will come up with resolutions and submit them for a vote: the power of the purse still belongs to Congress. It’s also worth remembering that President Trump has a habit of treating most confrontations as negotiations: so perhaps we should think of this budget proposal as an opening bid and not a wish list.

Many have attacked the budget for its draconian cuts to programs like Meals on Wheels, FEMA, afterschool programs, NPR, Americorps, and PBS, and that certainly deserves focus, though I will not discuss them in this post as I will be focusing on the portion of the budget dedicated to science and engineering research. I will also refrain from discussing the  proposed 30% cut to the EPA, the cuts to NASA’s earth science research, and cuts within NOAA, since these appear to be the result of the increasingly toxic political climate, a topic too complex for me to summarize within a subsection of a single blog post.

What I want to discuss is the cuts to funding for basic science and engineering research.

At the bottom of page 19, the proposal justifies eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) by saying that “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies”. On page 20, Mulvaney writes that despite a cut of $900 Million [(approximately 16%)] to the Office of Science, this budget “Ensures the Office of Science continues to invest in the highest priority basic science and energy research and development as well as operation and maintenance of existing scientific facilities for the community The budget also boasts savings of approximately $2 billion (approximately 42%) by cutting the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, the Office of Nuclear Energy, the Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, and the Fossil Energy Research and Development program in addition to eliminating the combined the Weatherization Assistance Program (which has a total budget of $230 million), and the State Energy program (which has a total budget of $70,000). The proposal also cuts $5.8 billion (approximately 18%) from the National Institute of Health. The blueprint makes no mention of the National Science Foundation (NSF) , which may mean the foundation will see no cuts, though it is likely that though the 10% across-the-board cuts in non-defense spending may cut into it.

While there may well be administrative inefficiency in these agencies (as stated by office of management and budget director Mick Mulvaney pointed out in a press conference), these cuts are far larger than that. These cuts reflect the spirit of the following facebook post by Mulvaney:  “Do we really need government-funded research at all?”

I think that this is a fair question, especially if you haven’t worked in scientific research.  I will answer it in three parts:

  1. How is science useful?
  2. How do fields in science and engineering advance today?
  3. How does increased specialization affect science and engineering?

As is my custom, I will focus primarily on physics and pretend the other fields don’t exist. Let’s begin…

How is science useful?

Shortly after his discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831, Michael Faraday was famously asked “what is the use of your new discovery”, to which he replied “what is the use of a newborn baby?”

In addition to inductors helping advance AC circuitry to the point that it became widespread in the 1880’s , Faraday’s “newborn baby” grew up to join the intellectual offspring of Ampère, Poisson, Gauss, and Lagrange in becoming a critical to James Clark Maxwell’s formulation of electromagnetism in the early 1860’s (Maxwell’s equations), which reshaped our understanding of phenomena like electrodynamics and electromagnetic radiation, and essentially created the field of electrical engineering.

This story is meant to highlight two facts:

  • The implications of science can be unexpected and far-reaching
  • These implications can take a long time to materialize

In other words, basic research can realize important applications, though what t hose applications will be or when they will materialize is highly uncertain. This is because, from a technological perspective, scientific discoveries are tools which inventors and engineers can use to create new devices. A scientist does not know what the results of an experiment will be before carrying it out, so it becomes very difficult to control exactly what kind of applications it will have.

How do fields in science and engineering advanced today?

When most people imagine scientific research, they think of what they see in movies. A scientist discovers some fundamental effect, and within a year has put it to use to create some invention which either alters the course of humanity, makes someone fantastically wealthy, or turns someone into a superhero.  Those who’ve taken a science class or two might be forgiven for thinking that it consists of coming up with groundbreaking equations like, well, Faraday!

If you go to the homepage of cutting edge scientific journal like nature, physical review letters, or applied physics letters and look at the flashiest new findings, you will find that all of these advances apply to what seems like very specific scientific subfields. The sorts of papers we learn about in introductory science classes would be hard to find today: as would someone with the surprisingly common 18th and 19th century job titles like “chemist, physicist, inventor, philosopher, and farmer”.

The loss of the scientific “renaissance man” is hardly surprising, given that research has become increasingly specialized as our scientific knowledge advanced, leading to a greater need for collaboration in research: especially when it comes to making a field more applied.

How does increased specialization affect science and engineering?

The increasing specialization of study in an advancing scientific field can be likened to the increasing greater specialization of labor in a developing economy.

Basic scientific research could be likened to the acquisition of raw materials, falling squarely into the primary sector of the economy (i.e. mining, fishing, or farming). One crucial difference between research and the primary sector is that resources are limited, resulting in zero-sum competition, whereas scientific knowledge and principles are clearly not: it’s not possible to “use up” science. Basic science research, unlike engineering research, cannot (generally) be patented, making it difficult to capitalize on basic research directly. For this reason, while basic research helps advance entire industries, it is very rare that an individual company finds it in its best interest to pursue basic research itself.

More basic applied science and engineering research is similarly equivalent to the part of the secondary sector devoted to processing raw materials like metal fabrication or the construction of copper pipes for more specific use. An example of this sort of research would be the use of advances in scientific knowledge to construct and study of devices or systems with extraordinary properties such as photonic devices or metamaterials with negative indices of refraction. While these systems promise manifold applications further down the road, technology or cost prevent us from being able to implement at this time.

A good example of a project in which a company would engage in this research is the endeavor by tech companies (including Intel, IBM, Google, and Microsoft) to build quantum computers. These companies research a wide variety of topics including: how to the construct qubits, what quantum circuitry would be effective, how to overcome problems of decoherence, and even quantum information theory.

This sort of R&D project can be thought of as a huge, long-term investment as well as (intellectual) vertical integration. Not surprisingly, more basic applied science and engineering research in the private sector has significant barriers to entry (most often, an oligopoly). Because the companies come out with patents relating to many discoveries and inventions made while working on this project. This means that industries are highly competitive, where companies have small or nonexistent economic profit, this sort of research would not be conducted without funding from the government or foundations. This is not to say that more basic research does not benefit these companies: they are able to devote R&D to more applied engineering research (i.e. they can make smaller, shorter-term investments). This is the premise of ARPA-E Funding!

This is not to say that an industry will remain this way forever: so let’s take a look at industries in which companies are able to fund more basic research themselves. So…

How does research conducted in the public sector differ from research conducted in the private sector?

Before proceeding, it is crucial to remember that research in the private sector is advanced by the profit motive, a formidable force for fostering innovation. When comparing research conducted in the public and private sectors, we should remember one thing. Whatever the shortcomings of research in the private sector, it has produced spectacular results industries ranging from semiconductors to pharmaceuticals.

The first difference between research conducted in the public and private sector is the goal. Research conducted by a private company has focused goals: it aims to have profitable applications in a specific field. Public research, on the other hand, is more general: it can aim to create a specific advice, but it can also aim to simply explore general properties of a certain class of devices or it may be entirely devoted to answer a question. Therefore, even in industries where companies routinely conduct fundamental research of their own, it is possible to publicly fund useful engineering research that would otherwise not be carried out! Another implication: when an experiment in the public sector turns out to have completely unexpected results, it can be more exciting than when everything goes right. This gives scientists and engineers working in the public sector more flexibility in following the results of an experiment instead of being forced to say “that result is interesting, but it’s not going to lead me anywhere I want to go”.

Public and private research also differs in the way in findings are shared. Unlike universities or national labs, where researchers are incentivized to publish, private companies are incentivized to make most of their findings confidential or proprietary. This means that the company will delay sharing their findings with the larger research community and when they do, they would do well to limit others’ ability to capitalize on their discoveries, limiting the way in which somewhat fundamental findings can be applied by others.

This is NOT to say, however, that the government should not reevaluate what research merits investment with public funds. It should and it does! Research grants are not easy to get from the government: in fact, much of the time the success or failure of a person’s career has little to do with their skill or even past productivity. I have heard countless stories of people who were good scientists, but entered the job market at the wrong time and found their careers at an end. In fact, a major reason many physicists leave physics for other technical fields like quantitative finance.

Many will say, however, that times are tough and the government should cut the budget so as to limit the ballooning debt which will drive up interest rates and crowd out investment. This is not a good time for long-term investments: we should restrict funding to only the most promising research.  Here’s the issue with that: evaluating the usefulness of funding for science and engineering is tricky because it is almost impossible to calculate an expected ROI for a future experiment.  Even calculating an ROI for PAST DISCOVERIES can be very difficult. What is the work of Faraday worth? He invented the inductor, but circuits also use the previous inventions of capacitors and resistors, in addition to later inventions like diodes and transistors: almost every discovery has been made by combining myriad previous discoveries and innovations with an researcher or inventor’s ingenuity. In short: while research is clearly beneficial to society, even the value of past research is extremely difficult to quantify. Also note that this hasn’t even touched upon the fact that the implications of research often won’t materialize for years or even decades!
So what? This is just an opening bid!

Finally, I get to the meat. The apparent cavalier attitude with which these programs were cut and the fact research only seemed to get funding if it appeared to promise immediate use like the National Nuclear Security Agency (NNSA) belies a short-sightedness that worries me. Either the blueprint was written without an understanding of how science and engineering research works (unlikely, though not inconceivable) or it was written with that knowledge and it is difficult to tell which is worse.

If the budget was written without knowledge of how research in science in engineering works, then Mulvaney didn’t try to familiarize himself with the topic (not difficult to do), and decided, instead, to make these cuts in ignorance. If this is true, then the budget director does not feel the need to properly educate himself before making important decisions. Scary but, as I said earlier, not likely.

If the budget was written with knowledge of how science and engineering works, then the government just decided t0 actively forego future growth for a slight reduction to the deficit in the present. The main exceptions to this rule are the increased money allocated towards the NNSA and NASA’s space exploration budget. The NNSA makes sense in the immediate future, but expanding interplanetary travel taking priority while cutting fundamental scientific and engineering research? There are three unsettling (comparatively likely) possibilities:

  1. Mulvaney does not believe something is beneficial or promising unless he can understand every step himself (“if it had value, I would understand it”)
  2. Mulvaney sees the importance of funding research (even those he doesn’t understand), but believes that cutting the budget is such an immediate concern that it is worth scaling back scientific research
  3. Mulvaney sees the importance of funding research (even those he doesn’t understand), but does not care because many of the effects will not be felt in the next 4-8 years.

I believe the third possibility to be the most likely. It’s also highly troubling because I have never been able to come up with a convincing answer to the question: what keeps people from borrowing from the future to benefit the present?