The Trump administration has released its proposed 2018 budget, and within it are some things worth cheering. Trump’s “America First budget” includes needed cuts to the regulatory state, defunds efforts to purchase more Federal land, eliminates funding for 19 minor government agencies, and makes significant cuts to a number of more significant ones — including the State Department, HUD, and Commerce. Unfortunately, the proposal also reflects the myth that America’s military is underfunded, calling for a $52 billion increase for the Pentagon and another $2.8 billion increase for Homeland Security. The budget also ignores America’s web of entitlement programs, the larger driver of the nation’s fiscal woes.
While the Trump budget, should it pass, would do little to change government spending as a whole, the targeted cuts would have a positive impact beyond the US debt clock. For example, the proposed cuts to the Energy Department, the EPA, and the National Institute of Health represent a significant step toward separating state and science.
It should go without saying that scientific research is a vital part of civilized society, allowing for technological breakthroughs that dramatically increase the quality of life for mankind as a whole. It is precisely because of its great importance that it should not be politicized by being influenced by politicians and government bureaucrats. The inherent problems of government’s inability to efficiently allocate scarce resources doesn’t change when the subject is science, so government research can suffer with the same issues of waste, fraud, and abuse that regularly haunt other programs.
The National Institute of Health, one of the areas most impacted by the Trump budget, provides a number of examples of such questionable research. As Senator Jeff Flake documented last year, the National Institute of Health dedicated millions to such pressing research as the impact of cocaine on bees, testing sex steroids on goldfish, and studying the appearance of Jesus on toast. In its own version of Washington Monument Syndrome, the NIH then came back to Congress asking for more funds to dedicate to actual public health concerns.
Waste at the NIH isn’t just a concern for economists and attention-seeking politicians, Dr. Michael Braken, at Yale University School of Public Health, has argued that 87.5 percent of the organization’s research is waste.
For every 100 research projects, only half lead to published findings. Of those 50, half have significant design flaws, making their results unreliable. And of those 25, half are redundant or unnecessary because of previous work. That’s how you get to 12.5 percent.
Not only are the priorities of public research questionable, it can impact the science itself. We have seen this particularly in the case of climate science, one area which is targeted extensively in Trump’s budget.1
Earlier this year Dr. John Bates, a former NOAA scientist, documented how climate data was improperly handled. The purpose, as Bates states, was:
[to put a] thumb on the scales — in the documentation, scientific choices, and release of datasets — in an effort to discredit the notion of a global warming hiatus and rush to time the publication of the paper to influence national and international deliberations on climate policy.
Government-funded science was manipulated to push a government agenda.
Past administrations’ concerns with warming have also led to programs incentivizing “alternative energy” sources, which can lead to all sorts of bad investments by private companies seeking public subsidy. One of the most prominent examples was the failure of Solyndra, the solar panel company that went bankrupt after receiving billions from taxpayers. These programs also take a hit in Trump’s budget.
Cuts to government research programs, however, should only be the first step toward making American science great again. The second part should come in the form of cutting taxes to the wealthiest Americans, and eliminating taxes for scientific investment. This is precisely what Murray Rothbard advocated in Science, Technology, and Government, and it would build upon a long standing American tradition of wealthy Americans playing a pivotal role in scientific innovation.
While it’s fair to debate whether Elon Musk is closer to Howard Roark or James Taggart based on his use of government subsidies, his SpaceX program has demonstrated the potential of privatizing space exploration — and the efficiencies that come with it. For those concerned about private interest in research without explicitly profitable ends, last year private non-profits provided $2.3 billion to basic research.
While his proposed budget is a solid first step toward de-politicizing science, unfortunately the increase in Pentagon spending means that military-related research will continue to enjoy the perks of government privilege. Resources that could have been dedicated to serving the wants and needs of the public will instead be allocated to building ever more expensive weapons for the world’s most powerful military (regardless of its actual performance).
As long as Trump continues to view the military-industrial complex as a sacred cow, he won’t make real progress in draining the swamp.