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President Biden is a champion of science – everyone knows this, right? He promises to follow it on major issues like the CCP Virus. He’s pledged to boost Washington’s funding of research and development. He’s blasted his predecessor for neglecting this responsibility. (See here for examples of the last two statements.)  And the scientific community the world over is brimming with confidence that greater respect from the White Houe and more resources are on the way.  (See, e.g., here and here.)

Judging from his remarks unveiling his big new infrastructure plans, it looks like Mr. Biden will indeed bolster the federal government’s support for science and technology. And that’s great news, because such efforts will be crucial to meeting any number of big public policy challenges and seizing equally important opportunities. Dealing with enviromental threats, beating back the China challenge, and boosting the nation’s productivity – its best hope for raising living standards on a sustainable basis – are just a few that come to mind.

And if you’re one of those who believe the Feds can’t do anything right, you need to learn some history. Washington has a formidable record both on the basic research and applied research sides. (Here’s an impressive list from America’s National Laboratories system, and it doesn’t even include major advances fostered by other agencies in medicine, agriculture, aerospace, and information technology – some of which are summarized here.)

Mr. Biden also is unmistakably right about America having fallen behind on these fronts. But what he hasn’t told you, and what his scientific backers seem to have forgotten, is that in the last roughly quarter century, federal science and technology spending in toto never stagnated as much as during the administration he served as Vice President.

The data below are calculated from the annual research and development budget requests made by U.S. Presidents going back to the Clinton years. (For the data from 1998 through 2015, see the National Science Foundation reports archived here.  For the later data years, see the annual Congressional Research Service reports here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Since Congress has the authority to raise or lower these requests, these figures don’t measure actual federal research and development spending by year. But they do shed light on how much various Presidents sought to spend, and by extension how greatly they valued nurturing such activity, how much they believed they could convince Congress actually to appropriate – and, by implication, how hard they were willing to push to achieve these goals.

In this vein, during his second term, Bill Clinton’s overall annual federal research and development budget requests rose by a total of 15.54 percent.

During the eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency, such Executive Branch requests increased by 43.91 percent.

For the eight years of Barack Obama’s administration? These requests climbed by 6.56 percent.

And under supposed science denier Donald Trump? They were up 20.82 percent.

Some important qualifications need to be made here. The big Bush increases were driven by major new asks for defense-related R&D (think “September 11,” “Global War on Terror,” and “Iraq”). Indeed, during his administration, such spending grew from 52.47 percent of total federal research and development spending to 58.97 percent. And when you draw this distinction, the Obama (-Biden) record looks better if you value civilian research over military. Here’s how recent Presidential requests compare on that score.

Clinton civilian requests: +25.67 percent

Bush civilian requests: +24.24 percent

Obama civilian requests: +34.26 percent

Trump civilian requests: +19.07 percent

But the Obama-(Biden) record doesn’t look that much better, especially than the Trump record. After all, that 34.26 percent increase took place over eight years, not four. And the Obama-Bush comparison, and other Obama comparisons, need to take into account the ever-blurring line between defense and non-defense-related research and development, because so many new technologies can be used in both fields and spur progress in both. That is, advances in defense knowhow can and do produce spin-off effects in the civilian world, and vice versa.

It still remains to be seen how the Biden infrastructure plan translates into specific research and development budget requests. But for now at least, Americans can be grateful that the Joe Biden of 2021 seems to be much more of a science and tech enthusiast than the administration he worked for a decade ago. 

By the way, special thanks to Rafal Konapka, who first brought the recent federal research and development trends to my attention.