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6. The Inefficiency of Military Research by Government

We have now seen that general scientific research should be left to the free market, and that conditions of modern technology do not require government control or planning of science. Quite the contrary. What now about military research? We have already said briefly that the end in view is for government to be only a consumer of military research rather than a producer; that government should contract for scientific research rather than conduct its own. Confirmation for this position comes from the important report of the Hoover Commission Task Force Report on Research Activities.36 The report was made by scientists who were mainly advisers to the Department of Defense, and hence not sympathetic to the Department.

The Task Force found that three-fifths of the military funds spent by government in 1955 were on operations in private laboratories. All of the Defense Department’s basic research was carried on in private laboratories—a clear admission that government laboratories are not good places to conduct vital basic research. Most of this basic research is done in college and university labs, its traditional home. The Task Force comments: “Since there is, in general, an inadequate environment and competence for basic research in its (Dept. of Defense) laboratories, the placing of substantially all of this work in the laboratories of the civilian economy is necessary.”37 As for applied research, two-thirds was being done in the civilian contract labs, and the Task Force strongly recommended the shift of most of the remaining one-third to private civilian hands: “A large portion of the applied research done in the laboratories of the military could be done more effectively in those of the civilian economy.” As for actual development of products, as compared to research, the Task Force also advocates a larger role for private operation. Development occurs in several steps. There is (a) establishment of the weapon project. This of course must be decided ultimately by the government staff, but here again, technical studies in connection with establishment are being farmed out to private contractors; (b) testing, which of course must be done by government—the consumer; (c) development and design. This category also absorbs two-thirds of all government R and D funds; three-fourths of development and design work was being done in private contract laboratories, and one-fourth in the government, and yet the Hoover Task Force declared: “Perhaps one-half of the work done in the laboratories of the military can readily be placed in the civilian economy.”38 (Other development activities are development aids to products, and current development, in which there is considerable activity by government.)

The overall assessment of the Task Force: “a considerable portion of the work now done in installations of the Government should be done in the civilian economy”—especially in applied research, and in development and design. This would be “placing the work where it can be performed with the greatest effectiveness.” And the Task Force expressed concern with the fact that, in recent years, the percentage of R and D work done in the government has been slowly but steadily increasing.

What are the reasons given by the Hoover Task Force for this relative inefficiency of government military scientific research? One reason is the salary problem. We have seen above the “shortage” that comes from not paying the free market price for services. The Task Force found that the pay for civil service scientists in the Defense Department has not been sufficient to meet the competition of the free market, and that there have been too few scientists appointed in the upper levels. Other problems are inherent in military operations in government. The system of military officer-rotation prohibits the emergence of a long-run specialized career for scientific officers. As the Task Forces charges: “the high level of strength of the industrial research and development organization of the nation could not have been attained were the personnel policy for the professional staff the equivalent of that of the military services for their technical officers.”39

Investigating three of the best Naval laboratories, the Task Force found an unfavorable “atmosphere” of friction among mixed civilian and military personnel, problems due to inadequate civil service pay and promotion policies, and to rapid rotation of upper officers. (And here we may emphasize the recommendation made above about scientists in government: that if the armed forces want good scientists, they should pay market wages, remove undue restrictions, and, further, to change the civil service system to allow more merit payment and less fixed bureaucracy.)

But there is more to governmental inefficiency than those matters. The Hoover Task Force asked the question: why is government poor on all research and development and design, but relatively effective in such work as testing and establishment? Because, answers the Task Force, “The operations of research and development are highly creative and imaginative, they require men with a special type of qualification and a high level of ... training. Most of the operations of the establishment, placement, and monitoring of programs, and the tests for evaluation are much less creative and more engineering in their nature.”40 But even in these latter tasks, the Task Force adds, there is much room for improvement.

The Task Force found the Air Force with the best record in shunting scientific operations to the civilian private economy, and the Army the poorest. But it called for even the Air Force to do more to shift operations into private hands.

  • 36. Subcommittee of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government, Research Activities in the Department of Defense and Defense-Related Agencies (Washington. D.C.: April, 1955).
  • 37. Ibid., p. 36.
  • 38. Ibid., p. 38.
  • 39. Ibid., p. 44.
  • 40. Ibid., p. 48.
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