Commentary: Reducing Federal Spending Requires Smart Choices, Not Just Tough Ones

By E. Wayne Holden

E. Wayne Holden

The political dynamics of the presidential election year in the United States have made painfully clear the unsustainable size of our federal debt ($16 trillion) and rate of increase in deficit spending (to nearly $4 billion each day). Unfortunately, polarized politics in Washington, through our elected members of Congress and the administration, have over the years increasingly reduced our options for comprehensively and creatively addressing the federal deficit.

With the upcoming election and looming “fiscal cliff” due to sequestration of funds combined with projected tax increases, our choices have become fewer and are now much tougher. These difficult choices threaten many areas of the federal discretionary budget, including research and development funding, which represents a small but vital investment in the future of our nation and economy.

Most of the commentary in support of federal R&D spending has thus far centered on the economic payoffs in biotechnology, medical breakthroughs, new technologies and the resulting job creation from these investments. Experts also have contrasted stagnant U.S. government spending to support R&D with substantial increases in government spending in other parts of the world, most notably Asia, where China’s year-over-year R&D spending increases are accelerating. Sustaining our investments in R&D is critical to maintaining innovation and ensuring competitiveness in a global economy.

As president and CEO of an independent nonprofit institute dedicated to conducting research that improves the human condition, I share these concerns. Decreases in federal R&D funding will have a detrimental impact on many of the organizations in the Research Triangle, including universities, not-for-profit organizations and commercial entities. North Carolina currently ranks seventh overall as a recipient of federal research funding, according to data compiled by Research!America. To maintain our reputation for creativity and innovation as one of the world’s leading R&D centers, it is vital that we continue to receive federal research funding.

But as a social scientist, I also take a broader view toward funding for federal research and closely associated program evaluation studies. I believe that applied research – including program evaluation and ongoing population-based surveillance – provides policy makers with the information they need to make smart choices, not just tough ones.

At RTI, we have spent more than 50 years conducting economic and social policy research to help inform and positively benefit public policy. We have conducted numerous studies to help federal officials determine which programs work, which are most cost-effective and which are ineffective. We have evaluated the cost and effectiveness of federal programs ranging from food stamps and K-12 education, to Medicare and Medicaid and public health programs.

In just the past 18 months, RTI researchers completed studies that identified ways to improve dental care among rural populations in Alaska and reduce health care costs by allowing nurse anesthetists to provide care in appropriate settings. Other studies have found that the now widespread pay-for-performance programs cannot guarantee improvements in the quality or value of health care, nor do they necessarily result in net health care savings. Additionally, RTI research showed that federal government investment in prison-based drug treatment programs can help reduce overall costs across the criminal justice system, because prisoners who receive treatment are less likely to commit future crimes than those who don’t.

So when we consider the need to reduce federal spending, it’s important to have critical information generated by studies like these. Rather than facing the binary logic of making or not making tough choices – cutting federally funded programs or not – applied research allows us to decide which programs work and which do not and to allocate federal funding for maximum positive impact on the lives of people across the country.

There is a saying that it’s easy to be hard, but it’s hard to be smart. As our elected officials struggle with difficult choices regarding the federal budget, I hope that they choose to continue investing in the applied research that provides the information to enhance their decision-making.

E. Wayne Holden is president and CEO of Research Triangle Park-based RTI International, which has ongoing projects in more than 40 countries.

Published August 23, 2012 in the News & Observer