NSF Funding for Economics Research: Good or Bad?

The latest Journal of Economic Perspectives includes a pair of papers debating the social value of ecNSFonomics research funding from the National Science Foundation, featuring Robert Moffitt from Johns Hopkins and Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrock from George Mason. The abstracts of their respective viewpoints follow:

Robert Moffitt: “In Defense of the NSF Economics Program
The NSF Economics program funds basic research in economics across all its disparate fields. Its budget has experienced a long period of stagnation and decline, with its real value in 2013 below that in 1980 and having declined by 50 percent as a percent of the total NSF budget. The number of grants made by the program has also declined over time, and its current budget is very small compared to that of many other funders of economic research. Over the years, NSF-supported research has supported many of the major intellectual developments in the discipline that have made important contributions to the study of public policy. The public goods argument for government support of basic economic research is strong. Neither private firms, foundations, nor private donors are likely to engage in the comprehensive support of all forms of economic research if NSF were not to exist. Select universities with large endowments are more likely to have the ability to support general economic research in the absence of NSF, but most universities do not have endowments sufficiently large to do so. Support for large-scale general purpose dataset collection is particularly unlikely to receive support from any nongovernment agency. On a priori grounds, it is likely that most NSF-funded research represents a net increase in research effort rather than displacing already-occurring effort by academic economists. Unfortunately, the empirical literature on the net aggregate impact of NSF economics funding is virtually nonexistent.

Tyler Cowen & Alex Tabarrock: “A Skeptical View of the National Science Foundation’s Role in Economic Research
We can imagine a plausible case for government support of science based on traditional economic reasons of externalities and public goods. Yet when it comes to government support of grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for economic research, our sense is that many economists avoid critical questions, skimp on analysis, and move straight to advocacy. In this essay, we take a more skeptical attitude toward the efforts of the NSF to subsidize economic research. We offer two main sets of arguments. First, a key question is not whether NSF funding is justified relative to laissez-faire, but rather, what is the marginal value of NSF funding given already existing government and nongovernment support for economic research? Second, we consider whether NSF funding might more productively be shifted in various directions that remain within the legal and traditional purview of the NSF. Such alternative focuses might include data availability, prizes rather than grants, broader dissemination of economic insights, and more. Given these critiques, we suggest some possible ways in which the pattern of NSF funding, and the arguments for such funding, might be improved.