In the 19th century, leaders like Bismarck understood that the politics of nation-states and warfare were going to be implemented by countries having the most effective transportation. Railroads required fuel and the notion of a 'strategic resource' - a resource essential for a modern country to be successful - was born.

The 20th century and the rise of tanks, planes and automobiles meant that oil was a strategic resource. If you didn't have it, you had to buy it and if you couldn't buy it, you had to fight to get it.

In the 1930s, America recognized that as the population began to soar, food would be a strategic resource, and the economic collapse of the Depression could not be allowed to place America in that kind of jeopardy. Smaller countries could produce food cheaper but American policymakers determined it was better to err on the side of more food production rather than less and have the sustenance of the population reliant on foreign imports. The cost? A whopping $1.7 trillion in subsidies, just in the last 20 years. Arguments against subsidies note these costs and believe it's better to take the risk while others contend it's better to go ahead and nationalize food production because it's hard to imagine that even the government could have done a worse job than private farmers when the cost has been $6,800 in additional subsidy cost cost per person over the last two decades.

Yet no one reasonable, hard-line fiscal conservatives aside, argues that we should let the open market dictate food cost. $3.50 per gallon oil tells you what can happen when other countries start to buy up a strategic resource and China currently buys a lot of oil. Imagine if they decided to buy food and America could not produce for itself.

The concepts of 'strategic resources' are standard in modern thinking now but only in goods. What about in intellectual resources like science? We are constantly told that American dominance in science is slipping so should we make it a strategic resource?

In the 2006-2007 fiscal year, federal expenditures on non-defense science and technology (including a whopping $29 billion for the NIH after doubling in size during the Bush presidency) were over $58 billion, which normalized for inflation to 1997 dollars is a 30% increase in government funding for science compared to the 1990s while the actual budget for government, adjusted for inflation, is about the same as 1995(1). So if spending in this sector is up 30% when adjusted for inflation while normalized spending everywhere else is relatively flat, science is clearly important to both Democrats and Republicans.

Federal share of support for basic ( non-commercial application ) research was 70% when I was born and 64% by the time I graduated college. It's under 60% today. Meanwhile, in this day of multi-billion sports contracts for colleges, academic expenditures in the physical sciences, as one example, have declined from 20 percent in the 1950s to just above 10 percent by the mid-1970s(2), where it remains now.

Universities, who perceptually seem to care the most about research, aren't spending very much of their budgets funding it. The difference in basic research has been made up by private industry which, as we know, is often going to think in terms of costs. That means we could reach a stage where nearly 40% of our basic research risks being outsourced. Science is in a rare position where the poles of the right, who are concerned about America's place in the world and would never outsource important strategic resources like the defense industry, and the left who distrust business, can all agree on the concept of designating science as a strategic resource.

I've argued before that rather than worrying about making more Americans into scientists we should focus on making more scientists into Americans. This is even more true in light of the fact that private industry is accounting for so much of our basic research.

The United States alone spends more on R&D than Japan and the entire European Union combined. Obviously US priorities in that spending are different; Japan and Germany, for example, spend a minor amount of their R&D on their defense industries because they have US bases to defend them whereas both Japan and Germany heavily subsidize private industry directly on the commercial side.

We all recognize that science is important. Not everyone agrees that making science a strategic resource similar to food and oil is the way to go.

In "Should Governments Fund Science?" written by Terence Kealey&Omar Al-Ubaydli of the Department of Clinical Biochemistry at Cambridge University, they argue just the opposite about the government's involvement. Their contention is that government funding tends to crowd out private funding and that an Adam Smith model where academic science flows out of applied science makes more sense(3).

In "Patterns of Patronage: Why Grants Won Over Prizes in Science", Robin Hanson writing at U.C. Berkeley goes even further and argues that science prizes lead to more innovation than the grant system in use today(4).

There are plenty of interesting ideas about the state of science. Status quo, designating it a strategic resource, or making it the ultimate in capitalism? Where do you think science should go next?



(2) Science and Technology in the Academic Enterprise: Status, Trends, and Issues (1989), Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable (GUIRR)

(3) Terence Kealey, Omar Al-Ubaydli (2000)

Should Governments Fund Science? Economic Affairs 20 (3), 4–9. doi:10.1111/1468-0270.00231