The reindustrializers are chanting that we've got to spend more on research and development. But we already are spending more -- more than we used to spend and far more than our foreign industrial competitors. What ought to be talked about is a new carve-up of the bountiful R&D pie, but since that might involve losses for longtime beneficiaries, it is simply easier to call for more.
The cries that regularly come out of R&D bear no relation to the volume of wealth that government and corporations put into the "knowledge" industry. The official custodian of R&D statistics, the National Science Foundation, recently tabulated next year's spending: $66 billion -- which means for the sixth consecutive year money for R&D is outpacing inflation by a respectable average of 4 percent. That $66 billion is close to double what the United States was spending as recently as 1975 and, as the statisticians say, is "at least twice the total amount spent by any other major Western country or Japan."
The growth comes from a steady increase in government spending, impelled more by the needs of high-technology society than any party ideology, Gerald Ford started to repair the damage the Vietnam economy did to the research enterprise, and Jimmy Carter has continued that effort. Along with the growth of government money, there's been a boom in industry-financed research -- so much so that, contrary to the widespread impression, Washington is no longer the main provider of money for these activities: industry has been expanding its role at a rapid pace -- 25 percent annually since 1975 -- and now holds a slight lead. Even in university-based fundamental science, for which the government remains the financial mainstay, the growth of support has comfortably out-distanced inflation, regardless of what we hear from the statesmen of science, for whom a trimmed-down grant is the modern-day version of the persecution of Galileo.
Like much else in American society, who gets what is less the product of rational assessment than the consequence of who got there first and dug in. Throughout most of the postwar years, no matter how much the U.S. government spent on research, defense always took about 50 percent directly, plus another 10 percent or so in slices from the civilian space and nuclear budgets. West Germany spends about 10 percent on military research; Japan far less than that. Much of that defense R&D money has gone into high-technology turkeys, such as the break-the-bank F18 fighter.
Less visible than such colossal fiascos, but also of immense cost, is the Defense Department's nationwide network of aging laboratories, many of which are rated by knowledgeable researchers as obsolete, bush-league establishments that survive for pork-barrel purposes. The same can be said of major aspects of the laboratory empire that originated under the old Atomic Energy Commission -- huge, hot and cold-war spawned establishments that now in large part busy themselves with trying to appear useful.
While they regularly collect their checks from Washington, the opportunities for new activities in today's static economy are sparse. President Carter's technocrats responded enthusiastically to his request for designs to boost industrial innovation, only to find his budget-makers paring their recommendations to insignificant levels. The Global 2000 report projects a cataclysmic imbalance between world population and resources if present trends persist. But governmental and industrial expenditures for contraceptive research have actually declined in recent years, partly because there's no organized constituency for this research. With no discretionary money in the government's R&D treasury, promising scientific opportunities remain unexplored.
The call for more R&D spending, when we've already got plenty, but much of it in the wrong places, invites curiosity about the drumbeating for reindustrialization, in whose name it is being proposed that we diminish the useful distance that exists between government and industry and academe and industry, and that workers' incomes be restrained to finance new industrial plant.
But just looking at the R&D segment raises doubts about the need for so grand an economic convulsion. What ails R&D is a kind of hereditary rights system that is incompatible with getting the most out of the monumental amounts that we already spend.