Science spending and GDP

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.


  1. I think each of these measures has its place. Spending is spending. Spending/GDP is an intensity measure, like an emissions intensity. Even plain old spending often needs some kind of correction (for inflation, for example) to make sense. Spending/GDP is useful to show how much of a priority different kinds of spending are, and also to compare spending in different countries where just comparing the absolute spending values might not tell you everything you want to know about how those countries view the activity. It really depends on the question.

    1. Thanks! I agree that it depends on the question. Part of my point is that intensity is almost entirely a political question and there’s no way to determine the “right” amount. What we do know is that even after accounting for inflation science funding has increased almost continuously since WWII. I guess part of what annoys me is that, as in defense, the intensity metric is used as a scare tactic to drum up more money. But this is a democracy and I guess we have the right to do that!

  2. In some parts of science and technology policy – space in my experience – whether or not the budget or the economy can ‘take it’ as Adams mentions seems to matter in the rhetoric. The common exchange is –

    NASA’s budget is $X billion dollars, that’s a lot. Why not spend some of that on Y?

    Well, NASA’s budget is actually just Z percent of the federal budget, so it’s really not a lot of money compared to (insert less preferred agencies here).

    Granted, this response dodges the argument, but there’s plenty of that in advocacy for particular outcomes. I don’t see a lot of this kind of arguing with respect to science budgets, perhaps because the advocacy strategy has been to argue for these doublings that put the financial discussion into a different framework.

    And really, Praj, determining the ‘right’ amount of science funding is a political question, so dismissing intensity on the same grounds doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

    1. Thanks for the example. Does clarify how intensity can be useful in advocacy and rhetoric. I should have been aware given my grad research was in space physics! I also agree it is a political question, and said so in my previous comment.

      Thanks for keeping me honest and not letting my rants get completely off track!

  3. All these measures can be used as scare tactics. The bigger problem with science funding in particular, which David alludes to, is that it tends to be in (unsustainable and irregular) cycles, rather than more deliberate and predictable.

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