We read that "despite tight new federal spending restraints, President Carter has instructed his aides to give special protection to research and development programs-now scheduled for $28 billion-in the government's fiscal 1980 budget." That is just 5.6 percent of the projected annual budget of $500 billion. The president expressed special concern for the government's "basic research" program, which will account for $3.5 billion of the total R&D budget; the remainder goes for "applied research." An additional $20 to $25 billion is spent each year by the states and other federal grantees for research and development.
Billions of this total expenditure-principally for applied research-are wasted by federal agencies and grantees because their research products are useless or are not mission-oriented and are, therefore, put in file drawers and never used. The research will never be "applied" to any development projects.
The fault in the wasted research dollars lies initially with the Congress, which fails to pass appropriation bills until late in the fiscal year in which the funds are to be spent. The principal fault, however, lies with the research and procurement departments of the agencies and the grant recipients and with their propensity for planning expenditures only after the funds are available. Consequently, within the last two or three months of each fiscal year there is a concentration of procurement activity-the goal being to spend all of the available funds by midnight on Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends. Inability to spend the money would reflect on a recipient's budget needs for research in the coming fiscal year. A trusting Congress continues to appropriate research funds in ever-increasing amounts simply because an agency can, on Sept. 30 of each year, balance its research expenditures with appropriated funds.
Private industry is well aware of this dilemma. Unsolicited proposals flood government offices. Although competitive negotiation in research procurement is mandated by law and regulation, many unsolicited proposals are negotiated finally with the firm that submitted them. That is because proprietary capability of a particular firm is cranked into the proposal, and the short fuse on the procurement process does not permit the government time to revise the proposal so competition can be sought.
A prime example of such a research project contained the following performance requirement: "The problem methodology of the target population will be comprehensively researched so that the primary institutional actor will receive only empirically evidenced data." A federal contract was signed, performance evaluation was impossible, but the end product was purchased and put in a file drawer. Proposals that are not generated by the research department of the agency invariably have little direct relation to its mission. Funds spent for the completed projects serve only to finance the firms that were paid for them.
Over the past two years, at the request of Sen. Charles Percy (R-Ill.), the General Accounting Office has studied the procurement of research by the Maritime Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation and its administrations. The GAO reports found that two-thirds of the contracts were awarded in the last month of the fiscal year, resulting in inadequate review of project proposals and awarding of unnecessary contracts.
A congressional oversight of each research-planning program of each agency before commitments are made is not practicable. Nor is it possible for Congress to second-guess each proposed contract commitment. The obvious solution and urgent need is for Congress, or its watchdog (the comptroller general), or the Office of Management and Budget to oversee the extent to which each executive agency develops and brings to fruition the research for which it determined it had a need. The budget-saving consequences of such oversight should be significant.
Federal agencies should plan their research programs far in advance of the availability of federal funds; constant surveillance would promote changes consistent with current research developments. A congressional mandate that research expenditures by each agency be scheduled over the 12 months after availability of an appropriation would ensure more considered expenditures.
The federal research departments should be masters of their own destinies, not victims of an enterprising private industry.