A Measure of Fear and Curiosity

Yesterday somebody I follow retweeted a tweet by X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis.

Diamandis’ tweet suggests that we can measure how afraid or curious the world is by looking at the ratio of US defense spending to science spending. In the discussion generated in the replies to his tweet many users agreed with this statement but many more seemed to disagree for a number of reasons. Before looking at those reasons I wanted to see if this idea had any validity so I got the US budget data from 1940-2014 with projections from 2015-2020 and made the following plot.

Click to open in new window.

A few things to note. The Y axis on the graphs is in Log10 because defense spending during the Second World War was so high, reaching 89% of the total outlay, that it made the rest of the graph look like a flat line. The years on the X axis change from ending in a 1 to a 2 after the 70’s due to the Transitionary Quarter budget introduced between 1976 and 1977. There are no recorded science spending figures for the years 1940 or 1941 so the graph starts in 1942 and the figures from 2015‐2020 are projections (including the 2015 figures). All the figures are taken from the US Government Publishing Office.

By dividing the National Defense figure by the General Science, Space and Technology figure the graph shows the log10 of how much was spent on defense for each million spent on science. The highest is in 1943 when exactly 1 million was spent on science in comparison to over 66 billion in defense. The lowest is in 1966 with 8.65 million spent on defense for every 1 million in science (58,111 billion/6,717 billion).

By sorting from highest to lowest the 20 years that saw the highest ratio of military spending to science spending, the most fearful years, are all the years from 1942 to 1961. There seem to be 3 main reasons for this: Nazis, Communists and the lack of any previous science spending. A lack of any previous science spending can be put down to a lack of anything to previously spend on. By 1957 science spending is at 127 million and broke 1 billion for the first time in 1961. By sorting from lowest to highest the 20 most curious years take in the period from 1963‐1970 and 1991‐2002.

Due to the massive outlay of the Second World War I have split the graph into two smaller graphs underneath. From 1942‐1962 science is accounted for in the budget for the first time as almost 9 out of every 10 dollars is spent on the Second World War. The peak in 1948 is caused by dramatic cutbacks to the budget in most areas, including defense and science. The ratio remains high but mostly because there is little in the line of science to spend on amid ongoing tensions with the Soviet Union and the Korean War in the early 50’s.

Between 1958 and 1965 defense spending remains stable while science spending increases from 141 million to 5.8 billion. Even amidst the Cuban missile crises and the assassination of Kennedy the 60’s is the most curious period with missions to space and the moon.

The 70’s sees an end to the space race, increased American involvement in the Vietnam war and then tensions with Iran in the 80’s and the oil crises. Science funding stagnates, it is still at 5.8 billion by 1980, while military spending has jumped from 50 billion in 1965 to 133 billion.

1991 brings about the collapse of the Soviet Union and a period of economic growth. This era is bought to an end on this graph by the September 11 attacks in 2001. Military spending goes into over drive and the ratio between defense and science spending peaks in 2011.

The graph seems to capture correctly the most fearful and most curious periods of the past 70 years. I expected the ratio to be higher in the early 2000’s but again there is no reaction to the Cuban missile crises or the JFK assassination. As these are budgetary figures, taking into account a whole year, they don’t react to single events, even ones such as momentous as the September 11 attacks.

As pointed out by repliers in the original tweet there are a few problems with using defense to science spending. Much of the early groundwork for the internet was done at DARPA. A portion of the defense budget goes into research and a portion of this in turn is in areas that become useful to humanity as a whole. In 2014 64 billion of the total 603 billion defense figure was spent on research, more than double the 28 billion total spent on science. Some repliers suggested using other metrics, like welfare spending to science spending.

If we agree with Diamandis’ tweet then the US budget is predicting that we are entering a period of time directly between the fear of the early 70’s and the curiosity of the late 90’s. The rise of Daesh and the re-emergence of Russia (classic Russia) will keep military expenditure high while new developments in space technology and machine learning will seek science funding. If you have any opinions on the use of defense vs science spending as a measure of fear/curiosity or ideas for other metrics that could be taken from the US budget please post them below.