The Politics of Federal R&D: A Punctuated Equilibrium Analysis

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The Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings

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Great Lakes Environmental Finance Center


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 objects of controversy. 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 interagency 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?