The politics of federal R&D: A punctuated equilibrium analysis

The fiscal budget has become a casualty of political polarization and even functions that had enjoyed bipartisan support, like research and development (R&D), are becoming divisive issues on Capitol Hill. As a result, federal R&D is likely to grow pegged to inflation or worse, decline.

With the size of the pie fixed or shrinking, requests for R&D funding increases will trigger an inter-agency zero-sum game that will play out as pointless comparisons of agencies’ merit, or worse, as a contest to attract the favor of Congress or the White House. This insidious politics will be made even more so by the growing tendency of equating public accountability with the measurement of performance. Political polarization, tight budgets, and pressure for quantifiable results threaten to undermine the sustainability of public R&D. The situation begs the question: What can federal agencies do to deal with the changing politics of federal R&D?

In a new paper, Walter D. Valdivia and Benjamin Y. Clark apply punctuated equilibrium theory to examine the last four decades of federal R&D, both at the aggregate and the agency level. Valdivia and Clark observe a general upward trend driven by gradual increases. In turn, budget leaps or punctuations are few and far in between and do no appear to have lasting effects. As the politics of R&D are stirred up, federal departments and agencies are sure to find that proposing punctuations is becoming more costly and risky. Consequently, agencies will be well advised in securing stable growth in their R&D budgets in the long run rather than pushing for short term budget leaps.

While appropriations history would suggest the stability of R&D spending resulted from the character of the budget politics, in the future, stability will need the stewardship of R&D champions who work to institutionalize gradualism, this time, in spite of the politics.