Does Government R&D Policy Mainly Benefit Scientists and Engineers?
NBER Working Paper No. 6532
Conventional wisdom holds that the social rate of return to R&D significantly exceeds the private rate of return and, therefore, R&D should be subsidized. In the U.S., the government has directly funded a large fraction of total R&D spending. This paper shows that there is a serious problem with such government efforts to increase inventive activity. The majority of R&D spending is actually just salary payments for R&D workers. Their labor supply, however, is quite inelastic so when the government funds R&D, a significant fraction of the increased spending goes directly into higher wages. Using CPS data on wages of scientific personnel, this paper shows that government R&D spending raises wages significantly, particularly for scientists related to defense such as physicists and aeronautical engineers. Because of the higher wages, conventional estimates of the effectiveness of R&D policy may be 30 to 50% too high. The results also imply that by altering the wages of scientists and engineers even for firms not receiving federal support, government funding directly crowds out private inventive activity.
Published: American Economic Review, Vol. 88, no. 2 (May 1998): 298-302.