I’m taking a break from my book review to briefly address something that’s always bothered me about how science spending is discussed. As I often do, allow me to analogize poorly from a political debate. Via Andrew Sullivan, check out this skewering of a sloppy, careless article on defense spending in the Post. In criticizing the Post article, Gordon Adams notes (emphasis in original):
They substitute the economic “burden” of defense for what we actually spend on defense, tryin to make the case that Eisenhower spent more on defense than we do today. Not true. Eisenhower’s defense budgets were a larger share of GDP than they are today. But the share of GDP consumed by the defense budget measures how much it consumes of US overall product, but not what we spend. If the GDP grows, unless the defense budget grows at the same rate it will consume a smaller share of GDP. Doesn’ t tell you much, except whether the economy can handle it. The proper measure of what we spend is what we spend, not how much it takes of the economy. Spending is measured in constant dollars, not in GPD shares. In FY 2011 constant dollars, the average Eisenhower defense budget was just over $400 billion; the comparable number for FY 2010 is over $699 billion. That’s more, a lot more, in anybody’s book.
A similar point can be made about science spending, and I’ve never understood why we use portion of GDP as a relevant metric. It’s always struck me as kind of a phony metric that conveys no information. Actual science spending has increased inexorably since WWII, whether it’s 2.35% or 2.54% of GDP. We can argue for more science funding without promoting the false notion that there is some “correct” share of GDP that should be spent on R&D. But of course, all we get is meaningless applause when presidents make equally meaningless promises.