It’s all about the money: Research Spending

moneyIn yesterday’s post, I encouraged you to be an investor in scientific research. In truth, you already are through your tax dollars. I bet you’d be interested to know how much of your money we are talking about. That is the bottom-line of today’s post.

It may be no surprise to you that the U.S. government does a better job at counting and reporting things like annual corn production in every county and energy consumption from coal than it does how much money it spends. I had a much harder time tracking down current spending and budgetary numbers than I imagined. So if anyone out there accounting for government dollars has additional data or insights, please feel free to comment below. The number I found for U.S. research and development (R&D) spending across all sectors (business, government, other) was ~$400 billion dollars*. For most people, and I assume all of my blog readers, this is an enormous sum of money. But- how does it really add up in the context of all the money we generate and spend?

In the U.S., total R&D spending is just less than 3% of its GDP split among government, industry and other funding sources. Government funding represents just under a third of this number (~0.8 – 0.9% GDP). Business R&D comprises the largest chunk of this total investment with other funding agencies like universities and non-profit organizations having the smallest contribution. The worldwide average of R&D spending is ~2% GDP. Check out this article with very useful graphics comparing global spending on research. If you are interested in more data on European science spending, check out Scienceogram.


Clearly, the U.S. is above average when it comes to spending on research. Because it is also the world’s largest national economy with a ~$15.7 trillion GDP in 2012, it also spends the most money in absolute terms as well. (That’s ~$440 billion in spending across all sectors from these figures.) These numbers indicate that the U.S. is the world leader in terms of investment in scientific research. However, now is no time to sit on our laurels. South Korea and Japan are committing larger percentages of their GDPs to R&D, and China’s economy is expanding at a faster pace than that of the U.S. So, the U.S. may have to cede this position in the coming years.

The values for U.S. R&D spending indicate a greater investment and commitment to science by the business sector rather than the government. (Thanks capitalism!) The programs funded by federal money mostly sponsor basic research- fundamentally important things we should know more about, but without a clearly defined application or product. These are projects whose timescale of investment would not survive in a purely capitalistic environment favoring short-term gains. Federal funds also drive research in areas critical to the national interest- food, energy, healthcare, the environment, security. In 2012, that amounted to ~$139 billion dollars.

Do we really need to commit more federal money if we are already spending many billions of dollars each year? Yes. This was the slow and steady increase I mentioned in yesterday’s post. At the very least, we cannot go backward. The President’s budget request for the 2013 fiscal year had only a 0.2% increase in R&D funding. Research funding even across a number of separate divisions (DOE, NIH, NSF, NASA, USDA etc) represents a small portion of the federal budget. The total U.S. budget expenditures in recent years are ~$3.8 trillion dollars. We are only allocating ~3.7% of our total budget for scientific research. With this level of investment, I do not believe as a nation we are investing enough for a comfortable retirement as citizens of earth.

Check out this graphic representation of the U.S. budget for 2010 from for some perspective on how science funding ranks in importance when real dollars are on the line or here for another graphic from Scientific American for the 2009 numbers. Surely there are other places within the federal budget than could be streamlined to provide some more room for science given the potential research has to reduce costs in other areas (agriculture, energy, healthcare). Here’s how the budget breaks down for 2011 estimates:


What do these budget numbers mean for scientific progress via federally funded research? It means fewer grants are being funded. Federal agencies are reporting funding success rates of ~18 – 20%. (Anecdotal rumors within academia in recent years put these numbers much smaller.) This means only about 1 in 5 submitted proposals will receive funding. With such abysmal success rates for funding, it means ~80% of proposed projects don’t get done. Of course, a percentage of those proposals may have significant flaws, but even accounting for some of those, that’s still a large amount of research left waiting on the lab bench.

While we may be the highest funded system in the world, these numbers are still disturbing. They mean that as a nation we are still only investing a small percentage of ourselves in innovation for the future. It means that our words and our actions are not congruent. It means that we will invest in scientists up to a certain point, but not give them the resources they need to conduct their independent projects. We can do better than this. Before the accountants and economists start coming out of the woodwork to bludgeon my proposal, let’s figure out a way to increase the research funding significantly and steadily in the coming years. Instead of fighting over why we find ourselves in our current state of financial affairs, let’s work toward the future. Even if we were to increase the research spending portion of the budget by 30%, it would still total a very small slice of the federal fiscal pie (less than 5%).**


*PPP$ = US dollars at purchasing power parity (PPP$) for the latest year available.

“PPP$ better reflects the real value of investments and allows for more comparability by eliminating differences in price levels among countries. Essentially, this means that a sum of money converted into US dollars at PPP rates will buy the same basket of goods and services in all countries. Source: UNESCO”

**I realize the number representing the 100% for our federal budget is more controversial because of deficits. Every item we increase allocations for now means borrowing money with interest we must pay later. When it comes to science, I still think it’s worth it.

Reference Links

2 thoughts on “It’s all about the money: Research Spending

  1. Pingback: Labor Day and the STEM Job Market | New Under The Sun Blog

  2. Pingback: How Science Communication Can Help Build Public Support for Science Funding › Communication Breakdown

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