The Wide Scope of Federal Research Spending

The United States government invests billions of dollars every year in scientific research. Government agencies such as the Department of Energy, NASA and the Pentagon directly employ legions of scientists and engineers. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds a tremendous amount of biomedical research. Besides running its own labs, the NIH gives generous grants to hundreds of universities and medical schools, and to the thousands of research professors who fill them. The federal government today provides about 60% of the total research funding for America’s many prestigious research universities.1 In addition, the government pays private, for-profit contractors vast amounts of money to complete science-intensive projects on its behalf.

Though some government-funded research is theoretical “science for science’s sake,” even this “basic research” often leads directly or indirectly to practical developments. Research at American universities has facilitated products ranging from Gatorade to synthetic insulin.2 The fact that 71.6% of citations to papers in U.S. biotechnology patents are to government-funded research3 demonstrates the practical value of government research to the private sector.


Aaron Miller*