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Some basic research surprises

Posted by: Michael Mandel on June 23

We all know that one of the main functions of government is funding basic research, with long-term, highly uncertain payoffs. After all, nobody else is going to do it.

So here’s the question—what kind of basic research have gotten the big increases over the past three decades or so? I used data from the NSF, adjusted for inflation, and compared with the overall growth of the economy.

I was a bit surprised at what I found:

Federal obligations for basic research
change, 1970-2003
Life sciences 369%
Psychology 61%
Physical sciences 37%
Environmental sciences 76%
Math and computer sciences 279%
Engineering 128%
Social sciences 1%
Overall economic growth
U.S. GDP 175%
All numbers are inflation-adjusted

The strong growth of basic research funding for life sciences and math and computer topics is not a surprise. But I was amazed to see how little increase there was in funding for basic research in physical sciences (which includes energy)—I knew it had lagged economic growth, but I didn’t realize by how much. And frankly, I would have guessed that there would have been a much bigger increase in basic funding for environmental sciences, psychology, and social sciences.


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Reader Comments


June 23, 2005 08:24 PM

Is "math and computer engineering" 279% or 128% ?
(Seems there are 6 categories and 7 percentages)

Michael Mandel

June 24, 2005 09:02 AM

Math and computer sciences is one category, engineering is another. I'll redo the table to make that clearer.


Thank you for your interest. This blog is no longer active.



Michael Mandel, BW's award-winning chief economist, provides his unique perspective on the hot economic issues of the day. From globalization to the future of work to the ups and downs of the financial markets, Mandel-named 2006 economic journalist of the year by the World Leadership Forum-offers cutting edge analysis and commentary.

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