Sloppy thinking on DOD-funded research

DOD research unrelated to weapons!

liberal bloggers protested the Times suggestion that cutting the Defense budget will reduce innovation. While some of their points are well-taken (the DOD budget is almost certainly bloated and wasteful), they all unfortunately make two big mistakes: they equate defense research with weapons research, and they neglect the role of deployment in bringing technology to scale.

Here is Robert Wright’s flawed analysis, typical among the group:

Defense department research, in contrast, focuses on services that people are more ambivalent about–like getting blown up. If more benign services get developed in the process–like if blowing people up involves technologies that help them play digital music–that’s a happy accident.

Wright’s simplistic link between DOD research and weapons ignores the synergies between civilian and military technologies. At some point the DARPA-funded optical interconnects that my girlfriend studies may improve weapons. But in the short run, they have a much better chance of reducing energy use.

At least in universities, DOD complements rather than competes with civilian agencies, and they all fund similar work. Everyone in my lab did the same sort of space physics research. Some of us were funded by the Air Force, some by the Office of Naval Research, and some by NSF. While the emphases may have differed slightly, there was a lot of overlap. That’s why we all had the same advisor. I’m sure there’s a similar dynamic  in quantum computing funded by DARPA, the NSF, and DOE.

The existence of multiple funding agencies is one of the main strengths of U.S. science. They foster diverse approaches and ensure that a single paradigm doesn’t dominate. It wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing if all of DOD quantum computing money were transferred to the NSF. We want many groups attacking the same problem and we should be happy DOD is part of the mix.

Now if all we care about is research production, we may be fine with just two or three agencies funding science. Especially if DOD is as inefficient as they suggest, we may be better off transferring half the DOD research budget to NSF and DOE.

But we don’t care about research for the sake of research. We want to drive innovation, which depends on much more than government funding. Which brings me to the second mistake Wright et. al. make: ignoring the importance of deployment.

As David Roberts noted, technology deployment is itself a form of research. It’s one thing to make a neat device in your lab. It’s quite another to scale the product, align it with customer needs, bypass regulatory hurdles, and market it successfully. I can’t tell how routine it is for a company to fail for these reasons even if they have the science locked down. As great as NSF research is, it’s only a small part of the picture.

Computers are commonplace not only because smart physicists figured out quantum mechanics. It’s also because we learned how to make lots of computer chips cheaply and quickly. The DOD role in this development has been crucial. Precisely because they are so massive and relatively price-insensitive, they enabled large-scale deployment and the learning that goes along with it.

Cliff Bob shows that he doesn’t understand any of this:

Nowhere in the article is there anything but assumption that only the military, as some kind of beneficent and far-seeing midwife of invention, could have fostered these and other innovations.  Nowhere are there convincing arguments that most if not all of these developments wouldn’t have been made either through some other government R & D agency or through the market itself.

Nowhere in Bob’s article is there anything but the wrong assumption that “these developments” occurred primarily because of an R&D agency rather than procurement and deployment. In some cases DOD was the only market in existence because no one else could afford the technology. Only after DOD brought down the price of semiconductors did we all benefit.

DOD may very well be wasteful and inefficient. Maybe in 2012 it’s not the best way to drive innovation and perhaps negatives now outweigh the positives . Those are fair arguments. But to debate the point intelligently, we have to first rid ourselves of the myopic view that money is all that matters. DOD funding is associated with scale and deployment, key components of innovation and commercialization. (See Roger for more along these lines.)

The most depressing part about all this is how otherwise brilliant writers make bafflingly simplistic arguments when it comes to innovation policy. Is it really so hard to understand that innovation requires more than government funding of R&D?

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