Do Democrats Always Spend More on Science Funding?

From abortion rights to gun control, bitter political fights between Democrats and Republicans are common. A recent study by Pew Research Center indicates that the US political landscape is at its most polarized point in the last two decades. This polarization makes elected officials less willing to make compromises and more likely to stand firm on extreme positions. One result of this division is a generation of stereotypes about each party’s stance on certain issues.

When it comes to funding for general research and development (R&D) purposes, or for scientific organizations like NASA, there is a common perception that Democrats are more supportive of science funding than their Republican counterparts. This stereotype has developed in part due to numerous Republicans’ public expressions of disbelief or hostility in regard to scientific issues. For example, several of the 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls do not believe that global warming is taking place, while others doubt that it is a result of human action.

Events in Congress have also helped perpetuate this belief. The most drastic example of this may have been when House Republicans pushed for a one-third budget cut for science and technology programs in 1995. This proposed cut led to a dispute with the Democrat-controlled White House, resulting in the temporary shutdown of several science agencies.

Sidita Kushi explains in a new study that there is important nuance missing from this stereotype. In reality, Republicans actually spend more on some issue areas within research and development than their Democratic counterparts.

To uncover the effect of presidential and congressional parties on the level of federal R&D funding, the author looks at past levels of federal R&D spending from 1976 to 2013, broken down by political makeup of the presidential administration, the Senate, and the House. Aside from examining the total amount of R&D funding by the government in constant 2005 US dollars, the author also disaggregates science spending into its functions (e.g. health, space, defense) and agencies (e.g. Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, NASA).

Contrary to popular stereotypes, Kushi finds that there is a weak negative correlation between a Democratic president and the total amount of research and development spending. When a new Democratic president comes into office, there is an average decrease of $6 billion in funding. However, the correlation between the House majority party and funding is the opposite. When Democrats hold the majority in the House, there is an average increase of $6 billion in R&D funding. In the Senate, the author finds no correlation between party affiliation and level of R&D spending.

When the author disaggregates science and technology spending into issue areas, she finds that there is an average increase in spending on space, energy, and environmental research when a Democratic president comes to office.

However, defense spending also falls under the umbrella of R&D spending. Defense spending alone represents more than 50 percent of the total R&D spending each year. As it is almost universally true that Democrats spend less than Republicans on defense, the author notes that this is the likely cause of higher overall R&D spending by Republican presidents. Thus, the parties conform to the stereotype in this regard. A Democratic president is more supportive of science research outside the defense realm, while a Republican president spends more on defense.

Kushi does not find a clear consensus on which party spends more after breaking down the funding among various federal agencies. For example, data show that a Democratic president spends less on the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services, relative to a Republican president. But, at the same time, a Democratic president tends to spend more on the Department of Commerce and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

This study suggests that Democrats do not always spend more on R&D, contrary to what is often expected by the public and the media. While it may superficially seem that Republicans are less supportive of investing in R&D compared to Democrats, a closer scrutiny of the data suggests otherwise—particularly when it comes to military and defense development. Although party affiliation may tell us which party is spending more on certain areas of science policy, there is no consistent party pattern in total research and development funding.

Article Source: Sidita Kushi, “Breaking Science Stereotypes: Examining the Effects of Party Politics on Federal R&D Funding,” Journal of Science Policy & Governance, 2015

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Songkhun Nillasithanukroh
Songkhun is a staff writer for Science & Technology. He is interested in international security and international development.

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