by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
The era of constrained federal science budgets is over. With Congress poised to boost public spending on research and development (R&D) by anywhere from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars, science agencies may be preparing for an infusion of federal money on a grand scale that has the potential to transform the institutions of science and technology.
Unfortunately, however, these proposals to bolster American science and technology — spurred by a global pandemic, mounting concerns about climate change, and a rising China — focus almost exclusively on the need for more federal money. Yet there are other problems facing the U.S. R&D system that, if unresolved, could undermine these goals. Foremost among these problems is the increasing bureaucratization of the scientific enterprise.
Scientists have complained for years about a growing number of federal rules and regulations that hamper research productivity. Today, researchers spend nearly half their time on paperwork and administrative tasks, rather than research. Increasing R&D spending will not solve this problem — and may even make it worse.
The bureaucratization of science is not a new problem. In 1961, barely a decade after the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the American physicist Alvin Weinberg was asking whether Big Science — big teams of scientists working on big scientific projects with big government grants and contracts — was “ruining science” by transforming scientists into bureaucrats. Weinberg, then the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, identified three causes for concern.
First, large budgets do not necessarily correlate with high-quality science, and Weinberg worried that big grants would become ends in themselves. Second, large budgets inevitably produce a need for large numbers of administrative staff to help secure and manage funds. Third, Weinberg observed that pressure to win large federal grants and contracts was transforming science itself by “converting university professors into administrators, housekeepers, and publicists.”