LINDA R. COHEN, Associate professor of economics, UC Irvine
When science and politics mix, the outcome can be costly, frustrating and nonsensical. It’s a clash between the long-term planning that science sometimes requires and the speedy results that politics demands. In an effort to point out the problems and offer solutions, UC Irvine economist Linda R. Cohen and Roger G. Noll, professor of economics at Stanford University, have written “The Technology Pork Barrel,” published this fall by the Brookings Institution. Cohen spoke about their findings with free-lance writer Anne Michaud.
Your book examines six technology projects and says that from a cost-benefit point of view, the NASA communications satellite was the only one that proved worthwhile.
Yes, the investment that was made in communcations satellites paid off handsomely. This is a multibillion-dollar industry. The program in photovoltaics (creating electricity from sunlight) I consider to be a success from a technology point of view as well, although we don’t see a huge industry today.
Some of the other ones really weren’t successes. I don’t call them failures because they didn’t pay off as commercial projects--I don’t think that’s a fair way to evaluate a program. It was more that you invest some money, and you get some information about whether something is going to work.
If at that point you see that it probably isn’t going to work, you rearrange the program. That wasn’t done in four of the cases we looked at, so I would call them failures.
Do most people agree with that assessment of these particular programs?
I think that most people probably look at the (nuclear) breeder reactor program as a failure. There was some good science that came out of it, but for all the money that was spent, we didn’t get much that was worthwhile.
When they realized that there wasn’t going to be a commercial breeder-reactor industry anytime soon--which was quite early on in that particular program, certainly by the mid-1970s--they should have stopped putting money into Clinch River (a demonstration breeder reactor in Tennessee). It should have been stepped back to a much more preliminary stage. What we should have been doing instead was more small-scale research.
When the program started in the ‘60s, we thought that electricity was growing at a very fast rate. We thought there wasn’t a lot of uranium, and the light-water reactor industry was booming. So, all of these things said, we thought we should have a breeder industry by 1990. But then by 1975, it became clear that none of those things were still true.
What happened next?
They continued trying to build the Clinch River breeder reactor for another eight years. In fact, the cost estimates kept growing and growing.
The result was that there wasn’t enough money to do everything, and they actually cut back on the research.
So, not only was Clinch River of no use, but we also lost the opportunity to do some good research on breeder reactor technology that might have stood us in good stead if we ever want to use this technology in the future.
And that’s why you call your book “The Technology Pork Barrel”?
Yes. That was the attraction of Clinch River. It was a pork barrel in the political science sense--building dams and rivers in important congressmen’s districts. This was not just Tennessee, this was subcontracted all over the country.
So, if that is the danger, what is the argument for having government involved in these projects?
The private sector will tend to not invest enough in science to benefit society. (If a private person) invents something using his own idea, then (there is a risk that) other people can use it too, despite patent protection and licensing laws.
There are also special things about some industries that make government involvement even more attractive from a social point of view.
For instance, behind the energy programs in the 1970s was the notion of energy independence.
Nuclear power has always been special, because it is involved with nuclear bombs, and the government has felt that there is a reason to try to control this technology, because through control we can further our goals of non-proliferation.
Space has other special characteristics. Most of the programs began as a matter of national prestige--the space race with the Soviets. It’s worth something to me (as a citizen), and I would never be paying (a private company) anything for it.
One of the conclusions that we reach is that some of these incentives are actually problematic from the point of view of doing long-term research. The reasons tend to wax and wane.
Are there other programs coming up that might benefit from your analysis?
There’s a tremendous amount of interest today in global warming. There’s a lot of money for it.
There are coal and synthetic fuel development programs. There’s a big push by the federal government to do something about sulfur emissions because of the concern with acid rain.
Another example is what’s going on with space funding now. It doesn’t look like the appropriate way to allocate resources from an economic point of view.
They’re putting all of this money into this platform and not that much into things like experiments. What we’re getting is a very visible project. There are big political benefits in terms of employment and contracts, especially today, with the aerospace industry the way it is. It’s big money, $2 billion. But the appeal of it is as a pork barrel rather than as a technology development program.
How would you reform the system?
It would be useful to institutionally separate science and technology development, because the way the budgeting process works in government, the most specific trade-offs happen within each budget.
On rushing the research. . .
“Research is rushed when the government develops technology. We probably went too fast into light-water nuclear power (the technology used today) and the (space) shuttle.”
On the incentive to build big science projects. . .
“People realize that if they stick around doing little science projects, they’re not going to make it for very long. The way to induce stability is to make (a project) big enough that it becomes a monster in its own right.”
On the space shuttle. . .
“Money was taken out of space science in order to finance the cost overruns on the shuttle. We substituted funds out of science in order to build this big demonstration project.”
On the fickleness of politics. . .
“The price of oil dropped, and energy was no longer salient as a political issue. So we lost interest (in alternate energy), and funding dropped like a rock.”