Double Down on Military Basic Research

By Stew Magnuson
A bumper sticker handed out at the recent Space Symposium in Colorado Springs serves as a reminder that the U.S. military’s contributions to society go beyond providing security.

“GPS: FREE GLOBAL NAVIGATION: Courtesy of Air Force Space Command,” the sticker read.

The Defense Department established the Global Positioning System in 1973 and spent some $12 billion developing and deploying it before it became operational in 1990. Without the basic research and U.S. government investment in the program, it’s difficult to see how the benefits of a global navigation and timing system would exist today.

As the deficit hawks and defense hawks in Congress fight for the soul of the Republican Party, it’s a good time to remember the old axiom: “In order to make money, you have to spend money.”

A 2011 report for NDP Consulting authored by Nam D. Pham pegged the yearly direct U.S. economic impact of the GPS industry at $67.6 billion, with some 130,000 jobs in GPS manufacturing alone and another 3.3 million workers who depend on the technology to carry out their jobs.  
Cutting basic and applied research accounts at government-funded labs that create such technologies is shortsighted. If anything, the budget request should be doubling down. The Obama administration in the 2016 budget proposal cut military basic research accounts by 8 percent.

Meanwhile, there are those in the deficit hawk coalition — tea party members, Libertarians and such — who will post statements on social media sites that the “government doesn’t create jobs.” They will qualify this notion with: “outside of lobbyists, lawyers and government employees, of course.”

The idea that government doesn’t create jobs is laughable. It would be difficult to calculate the number of positions that basic and applied research funded by U.S. taxpayers have brought forth. It’s easier to count the number of industries.

There would be no GPS if there were no rockets to launch them on. The Army, Air Force and NASA ushered the United States into the space age as the nation squared off with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. From that also sprung the global satellite telecommunications system, commercially available remote sensing and probably soon, space tourism.

More down to Earth, Congress funds the National Human Genome Research Institute at about $499 million per year. A June 2013 report by the Battelle Technology Partnership Practice said between 1988 and 2012, the project, associated research and industry activity directly and indirectly generated an economic output impact of $965 billion, personal income exceeding $293 billion and more than 4.3 million job years of employment.

The federal government invested $3.8 billion through the project’s completion in 2003 and followed that with an additional $8.5 billion in human genome-related direct research and funding support. Looking only at the program’s funding as the initial input, these genomics activities yield a leverage ratio on the U.S. economy of 178:1, it said.

During that same 14-year period, the U.S. Treasury collected $54.8 billion in revenue from the genomics sector and its suppliers, the report added.

With all that good news, the National Human Genome Research Institute continues to get modest increases in its budget. The Obama administration proposed an $18 million boost in 2016 bringing it up to $515 million. Looking at these returns on investment numbers, the case could here again be made for doubling down.

Bringing it back to the military, DARPA is quick to point out that it invented the Internet. Where does one begin to calculate the economic impact of that initial U.S. government research investment?

The private sector is, of course, a force of good in this equation and has perhaps the most important role. It takes the science the U.S. government has invested in, runs with it, creates products and signs the paychecks for all those it employs as it seeks to make a profit off the taxpayer’s investment. Is this where the idea that only the private sector creates jobs derives?
Taking the above four examples — GPS, space launch, the human genome and the Internet — the private sector either lacked the vision, or the funds, to kickstart these industries. Companies rarely invest in basic research because there is no near-term payoff.

The problem is that basic research often lacks constituencies in Congress. A weapons program creates jobs that lawmakers can point to today. Basic research may take years or decades to come to fruition.

The Obama administration certainly believes in investing in research and development, and the 2016 budget request shows it. However, the budget reflects its priorities. More funds in the latest proposal go for investigating the potential impact of climate change, which is not a bad thing. But that shouldn’t mean military research budgets getting the short shrift.

While DARPA and the service labs are charged with developing technologies that directly benefit the military, one never knows what kind of commercial products will spinout and help boost the economy and create jobs.

At the Space Symposium, Col. Mike Guetlein, director of Air Force space and missile center’s remote sensing systems directorate, said the service is taking steps to make data collected by its new fleet of space-based infrared radar spacecraft available to industry to develop products, just as it did with GPS. This is a system initially developed to search for intercontinental ballistic launches, which is exclusively a military requirement.

“There is an explosion coming and a growth area of being able to use this data in a variety of applications,” he said.

Only time will tell how many jobs this new data stream will create.

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Science and Engineering Technology

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