From AEI:

Policymakers should think about key reforms to boost efficiency for the entire federal research effort. For more on that, here is a bit of my recent podcast conversation with Tony Mills, director of the R Street Institute’s science policy program:

Pethokoukis: I was having a conversation with someone, and they were asking, “What would be some big ideas for science funding?” I sarcastically said, “DARPA, but for pandemics,” because I think that’s an easy thing to say. Some people prefer DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — and they know it had a big role of autonomous driving, for instance. Is there a new agency or a new structure that you would like to see just briefly put into place? Or do we just keep the basic structure but maybe refocus it, or spend more money on it? What are the ultimate policy actions you would like to see taken?

Mills: So first, here’s what I would not like to see: someone saying, “Here are the practical goals and let’s throw money at that and see if we can solve the problem.” I think in some discrete cases that may be perfectly fine. If we’re talking about developing a vaccine for the novel coronavirus based on what we know about its underlying virology or whatever, then okay. But in focusing on the kind of large-scale, “we need a moonshot” kind of thing, the danger is that we are not very imaginative. And by “we,” I mean people that are not developing the scientific ideas about how discovery, innovation, and progress really takes place.

And we can talk ad nauseum about this. There are a lot of examples of these kinds of serendipitous discoveries, where developments in physics lead to breakthroughs in parts of biology or something. So I think it’s very difficult to put your thumb on the scale ahead of time and come up with the right answer. So that’s what I would not like to see.

Now, in terms of policies, I think there are a lot of problems with our current R&D framework. And so what I would propose, rather than creating a new agency or something like that, would be thinking seriously about how we can reform what we are currently doing. There are a lot of problems with incentive structures in the academy that arguably are leading some research down roads that maybe are not so desirable. The average age of a lot of recipients of federal grants is getting older. There is a bias toward big science versus small science that maybe goes too far in that direction. And as I mentioned, I think there’s the general trend of biasing applied research and development over basic science.

And so there are a lot of different ways we could experiment with new R&D models, such as giving smaller grants to a wider range of people. There’s a problem of too many “capturing” of federal money by well-established research institutions, so it’s worth trying to diversify the pool of recipients. I think there are a lot of things that we could kind of put into the toolkit to innovate in how we stimulate R&D. But there are these larger trends away from basic science that I would also want to counteract.