Like many Americans, I have been critical of American universities on many grounds: they are far too expensive and bureaucratic, teach too little, suppress free expression, etc. But I have also thought that university scientific research in America, while far from perfectly efficient, has been quite fruitful and productive. Indeed, America’s reputation for having many of the world’s best universities derives largely from its distinguished record in research, mainly in the sciences and engineering. That high reputation in research has contributed importantly to America’s economic prowess. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is built around great universities like Stanford and Cal Berkeley.

Indeed, an excellent case can be made that the 20th century was the American Century in higher education because of its extraordinary growth in cutting edge research. In the first three decades (to 1930), fewer than 10% of Nobel Prize winners in the sciences (thereby excluding the prizes for literature or peace) had a strong American association. By contrast, in the last three decades of that century, more than 60% of the winners of scientifically related Nobel Prizes had a strong American involvement (as graduate students or professors at American universities).

Yet after peaking at around 70% in the 1990s, that proportion has fallen some in the 21st century. Twenty nineteen is fairly typical: of the nine Nobel laureates in the STEM disciplines, five (56%) have American affiliations, with others coming from the U.K., Switzerland and Japan. While a surprising amount of basic research is carried on in non-academic settings (one recent Nobel Laureate worked most of his life at Bell Labs), universities are the home of most important discoveries, and they derive most of their funding from the federal government, although there is a good deal of unfunded research outside the sciences that the universities fund themselves, partially by awarding faculty relatively low teaching loads, sabbatical leaves, etc.

Yet there is a problem: after robust expansion in spending by such federal agencies as the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy and others in the last half of the 20th century, funding growth has stagnated, sometimes even declining, in recent times. American exceptionalism has been built around discovery, exploration and entrepreneurship, a large element of which is scientific research. Yet, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, inflation-adjusted non-defense R&D spending by the federal government actually fell between fiscal years 2010 and 2019, during a period of one of the longest economic expansion in our nation’s history.

Until recently, we have even had to depend upon the Russians to get Americans to the International Space Station to conduct research. The nation of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers, and great university researchers immigrating from other countries, scientists like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and Albert Einstein, is starting to lose its science/technological primacy to other countries where university research spending is growing rapidly.

I talked to Lauren Brookmeyer, speaking for the Science Coalition, a group of about 50 major research universities, the other day. That organization is aggressively promoting the passage of something called the RISE (Research Investment to Spark the Economy) Act, providing about $26 billion to universities for research. The Science Coalition is promoting it as an anti-recessionary stimulus measure—creating science-related jobs.

I am a fiscal conservative who thinks the practice of dropping money out of airplanes (or the equivalent) to stimulate the economy is, generally speaking, a recipe for disaster, adding to the horrendous federal debt that ultimately is likely to severely hurt future generations. But I also think the economy needs to promote investment in our technological infrastructure to promote future prosperity, and to fight the loss of scientific primacy to the Chinese and other nations.

Moreover, Congress should let the scientific community and merit govern the distribution of additional research assistance, not the whim of politicians seeking to promote their own job security more than the national interest. Let scientists, working with agencies like NSF or NIH, distribute the monies.

There are some reforms in the process of distributing research funds, such as lowering and standardizing overhead allocations (reducing funding of university administrative bloat) that are desirable, but this is an area where federal funding directly promotes a core academic mission: the creation of knowledge.