The Case For Doubling Spending on R&D

Timothy Taylor, author of the blog The Conversable Economist, has a nice post out on the case for doubling R&D spending. He speaks of doubling spending on R&D by the US government, but the point is equally applicable to all governments, including India’s.

The post is a reflection on a chapter in an e-book published by the Aspen Group. The chapter has been written by Benjamin F. Jones, and is titled “Science and Innovation: The Under-Fueled Engine of Prosperity.” (pp. 272 in the PDF that has been linked to above). Timothy Taylor shares an extract that ought to familiar to us in terms of the direction in which scientific progress has been headed, and perhaps even the magnitude – but every now and then, it helps to remind ourselves how far we’ve come:

Real income per-capita in the United States is 18 times larger today than it was in 1870 (Jones 2016). These gains follow from massive increases in productivity. For example, U.S. corn farmers produce 12 times the farm output per hour since just 1950 (Fuglie et al. 2007; USDA 2020). Better biology (seeds, genetic engineering), chemistry (fertilizers, pesticides), and machinery (tractors, combine harvesters) have revolutionized agricultural productivity (Alston and Pardey 2021), to the point that in 2018 a single combine harvester, operating on a farm in Illinois, harvested 3.5 million pounds of corn in just 12 hours (CLASS, n.d.). In 1850, it took five months in a covered wagon to travel west from Missouri to Oregon and California, but today it can be done in five hours—traveling seven miles up in the sky. Today, people carry smartphones that are computationally more powerful than a 1980s-era Cray II supercomputer, allowing an array of previously hard-to-imagine things—such as conducting a video call with distant family members while riding in the back of a car that was hailed using GPS satellites overhead.

The latter part of the extract, which I’ve not quoted here, is about the increase in life expectancy, and is also worth reading. Post the extract, Timothy Taylor goes on to speak about how it is important to celebrate the fact that we were able to push out vaccines in the space of a little less than a year, which is a stellar achievement. And indeed it is! You might have differing opinions about the efficacy of these vaccines, and you might even be of the opinion that the firms doth profit too much from their creation, but I hope you agree that the fact that we were able to do this at all, and as rapidly as we did, is testimony to have far we have come as a civilization.

As an aside, read also this Washington Post editorial about the discovery of the virus, and how the message didn’t get out nearly quickly enough (duh.)

Both points are important to understand as students. Which two points, you ask? That progress as a civilization depends on two things: the rate of technological progress, and the underlying culture that enables it, embraces it and uses it properly. For reading the editorial, I came away with the opinion that China had the technology, but lacked the culture.

I would urge you to think about how this might resonate with each of us as individuals: we have the technology to be ever more productive, and the technology improves every year. But have we built for ourselves a culture of allowing ourselves to use this technology as efficiently as we should? What about the institutions that each of us work for or study in? What about the countries we stay in? Technological progress without an enabling culture doesn’t work, and as students of productivity (that’s one way to think about studying economics), you need to be students of both aspects.

Anyway, back to scientific progress. One of the points that Jones makes in his chapter is that the US has been lagging behind the current leaders on two different metrics: total R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and public R&D expenditure as a share of GDP. China’s R&D expenditure has seen an annual increase of 16% since the year 2000, while the US is at 3% annual growth.

What about India, you ask? Here’s a chart from an Indian Express article about the topic:

As the article points out, let alone trying to compute the rate of increase, we actually seem to be on a downward trajectory for a metric called GERD, which stands for Gross Domestic Expenditure on Research and Development. Here’s the link to the data from the World Bank.

We clearly need to do better. That article in the Indian Express ends with this paragraph:

A commitment from the Centre to raise GERD to 1 per cent of the GDP in the next three years could be one of the most consequential decisions taken in the 75th year of India’s independence.

And that is a nice segue back to the blog post that we started today’s post with. If you’re asking (and I hope you are!) questions along the lines of why it should be the government and not the private sector, I have two answers for you. One, the truth always lies somewhere in the middle, and so you need both private and government spending. And two, there is an economic argument for your consideration:

Jones’s essay reviews the argument, fairly standard among economists, that a pure free market will tend to underinvest in new technologies, because in a pure free market the innovator will not capture the full value of an innovation. Indeed, if firms face a situation where unsuccessful attempts at innovation just lose money, while successful innovations are readily copied by others, or the underlying ideas of the innovation just lead to related breakthroughs for others, then the incentives to innovate can become rather thin, indeed. This is the economic rationale for government policies to support research and development: direct support of basic research (where the commercial applications can be quite unclear), protection of intellectual property like patents and trade secrets, tax breaks for companies that spend money on R&D, and so on.

Now, how much of the lifting should be done by government, and how much should be done by the private sector is a debate that will never end, but here is an EFE post that might help you start to think through the process.

Timothy Taylor and Benjamin F. Jones argue that the US needs to spend more on R&D, and that the U.S. government should do more in this regard.

My contention is two-fold: that this point applies with even more urgency in the Indian context, and that an enabling culture is an equally important concept, but an underrated one the world over.

Leave a Reply