Questions that are rarely asked

by on October 2, 2012 at 1:28 pm in Education | Permalink

It is estimated that less than $1B is spent in the U.S. each year on education research, with the federal government spending about $700M and universities, foundations and the private sector spending about $300M.  That may sound like a lot, but it’s not.  Consider that medicine and education should be two sides of the same coin.  Both are services that developed democracies have decided all citizens are entitled to regardless of birth, station or resources.  Medicine advances human health and happiness.  Education advances economic productivity and happiness.  Then consider that $140B is spent in the U.S. each year on medical research.

How to explain the 140:1 ratio?

Here is more.

1 Brian October 2, 2012 at 1:34 pm

What is the relationship between the two sectors in terms of the private / public mix? In health, roughly 50% of the spending is from the government and 50% from private sources. What is the breakdown for education?

Perhaps looking at the 140:1 ratio in this context may shed some light….?

2 Doc Merlin October 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm

You win the thread.

3 Silvester October 2, 2012 at 3:31 pm

Well, the National Institute of Health’s budget is only $30 billion or so. Where is the other $110bn coming from?

4 mulp October 2, 2012 at 5:41 pm

“… and universities, foundations and the private sector spending about …”???

NIH $30B vs HEW $700M to $110B v $300M??

I think the government medical spending is more than the NIH $30B, the military spending on applied research for the disabled is certainly significant and will flow to the non-military sector in a much larger over time. States fund R&D to create jobs.

The big reason for the difference is education R&D needs test subjects and using humans as test subjects is ethically problematic. You need to be a believer in for-profit charter schools delivering better than public schools for the same dollars and same admission rules to want to have your kid go into such a research project. And you really need to be a true believer to have your kid assigned randomly in either the charter or public school to test which is more effective.

The R&D on childhood terminal conditions is done on mice or petri dishes for two reasons – greater control, and avoiding testing on human subjects, even if parents would give you their kid to experiment on out of desperation. Even without the FDA which for a couple of decades can let children be used as test subjects if they are doomed as long as a ethics board approves. The peers of researchers worry a great deal about desperate parents being unable to give informed consent. When ethics boards do give approval leading to bad results, they pull back, even when the harmed test subjects say it was worth the risk.

Note drug companies have been pushing education R&D without much in the way of test protocols, which if run by Tim Leery et al would be a scandal. We do have a “better education through chemistry” policy in the US based on giving speed to pre-teen and early-teen children to give them focus – and then locking up the older teens and college kids as drug users/dealers for using speed to focus in college.

5 Jay October 2, 2012 at 1:39 pm

It seems as though politics has maid issues such as Healthcare the “forefront” of these kinds of issues. Whether or not the opinion is that there should be more or less spending on either piece of research, it’s more or less the affect of political trends.
Also, it seems like there is sufficient questions to ask as to what quantifies proper “research” on behalf of education

6 Silas Barta October 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm

It seems as though politics has maid issues such as Healthcare the “forefront” of these kinds of issues.

I wouldn’t relegate health care to being an issue only of concern to maids.

7 msgkings October 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Every human being will need/consume healthcare. Not everyone has kids to educate.

Not saying this is very farsighted of an attitude but it might be a factor.

8 Vernunft October 2, 2012 at 1:46 pm

Medical care is useful to all – who wants to die?

Education, not so much. Half the population is left of 100.

9 Rahul October 2, 2012 at 1:52 pm

There’s a crucial distinction between “education” and “education research”. No doubt we need more of the former; but I’m not so convinced about the high returns of “education research”.

10 lnmaurer October 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm

This is true. I think the big thing we need to do is to implement what the education researchers have found.

For example, I’ve got some experience with physics higher education. The traditional method of lectures isn’t that effective. A more effective method is to replace the in-class lectures with video lectures (to be viewed before class). Then students — in small groups work well — can use class time to do problems and ask questions with the professor and — for a large class — Teaching Assistants available to help.

11 Ray Lopez October 2, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Stats on education spending wrong: not what the article says, for total education. (USA spends 5.7%/yr of GDP on education; US GDP = 15.09T; 15.09 * 0.057 = $860B a year). Like many other things on the web–lies, dang lies and statistics. Obviously the $1B figure is selective–possibly just higher education and possibly just plain wrong.

12 Cliff October 2, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Education RESEARCH

13 Bill October 2, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Cliff, there is no source or cite to what the author calls “educational research” nor is there a source or definition of “medical research” either.

Everyone is just swinging at air.

14 Cliff October 3, 2012 at 12:06 am

There is no definition of medical research?? Do you need one?

15 Cliff October 3, 2012 at 12:08 am

Bleh, I guess if you want to check the numbers. But not relevant to this comment, anyway.

16 Bill October 3, 2012 at 7:40 am

Cliff, What is the expenditure for “education research”. Go ahead, I dare you to find total expenditures for this item.

Go ahead.

17 Rahul October 2, 2012 at 2:03 pm

“Education” versus “Education Research”?

18 Enrique October 3, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Exactly, what is “education research”? Perhaps we should be spending LESS on this, not more

19 Cliff October 2, 2012 at 2:04 pm

Two sides of the same coin, my ass. Why pick these two to compare and not 100 other things? “We” really decided that “all citizens are entitled to health care and education”? How much health care and education? And how does that have any relation to research spending?

20 dead serious October 2, 2012 at 2:11 pm

Agree, this is an odd argument.

$1B on education research sounds like $950M too much to my ears.

21 FE October 2, 2012 at 4:51 pm

Yes, we’ve also decided all citizens should have clean water, does that imply we should spend $140B on clean water research?

22 JWatts October 2, 2012 at 5:25 pm

What is the logic that says these two unrelated activities should have parity in research budgets? Clearly, we get a greater ROI out of Medical research than Education research. Is the 140:1 the right ratio, probably not, it’s more happenstance than anything else and likely has changed greatly over time. But I still can’t imagine society choosing to spend a lot more scarce resources on education research.

23 somaguy October 2, 2012 at 7:30 pm

“Clearly, we get a greater ROI out of Medical research than Education research.”


24 Anthony October 2, 2012 at 8:34 pm

The results of medical research are actually adopted.

25 Ivo October 3, 2012 at 2:48 am

Wish I could upvote this comment and its responses to be displayed at the top. The question is rarely asked, because it has no merit whatsoever.

26 Todd Fletcher October 2, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Why think we need research to find new ways to educate when 50 years ago we had great schools that turned out literate and numerate students in masses?

27 MAS October 2, 2012 at 2:37 pm

50 years ago we had great schools? Go back and read the Conant Report on the American High School (1959). Many fewer students pursued pre-college curricula than today. 50 years ago we still had “separate but equal” schools for blacks throughout the U.S. which massively failed non-whites. Why do we always think it was better in the “good old days”

28 Todd Fletcher October 2, 2012 at 3:46 pm

The fact that some schools were segregated in some parts of the country then was not a reflection of the teaching methods used, now was it?

The overall decline in the quality of our culture, governance, and civility is apparent to everyone. While I wouldn’t lay all of that at the feet of an eviscerated and dumbed down curriculum, at the very least it’s plain that all of the new theories and techniques have down nothing to reverse it either, while this bill of goods was sold to us as a way to liberate the innate abilities of all students. It has failed to do so.

Read this story about a school that turned around it’s failing reading and writing by using common methods from the 1950s:

29 prognostication October 2, 2012 at 5:09 pm

IMO, there’s a causality that you skirt dangerously close to eliding here. The dumbed down curriculum is precisely the result of societal pressures. It’s certainly not anything the average teacher wanted. Now, there may be a feedback from that into further deterioration of society, but let’s not lose track of where it started.

30 Todd Fletcher October 3, 2012 at 12:24 pm

It sounds like you’re saying that the very condition that the Progressive methods of education were supposed to cure are the cause of the problem: wasn’t it supposed to lift everyone up?

31 Mike October 3, 2012 at 8:43 am

When i see a comment like this i have to wonder WTF are they talking about?

Anecdotally, which is just as valid as the Atlantic article, the sophistication, depth, breadth, and efficacy of my children’s inner-city public school education today is so far ahead of my parents’ middle-class suburban education in the 1950’s as to be laughable.

Speaking as a parent, i definately wouldn’t trade the two.

32 RM October 2, 2012 at 2:18 pm

1. There are lots more questions to be asked in medical research.

2. There is lots more prestige in medical research; prestige begets prestige begets money. (There is no noble prize for “education”, although, of course, Chetty may study the effects of educational approaches, but that is a one time event).

3. Physicians doing clinical research are much better at selling their fake and un-rigorous results (yes, I realize that is only a portion of the pot).

33 Rahul October 2, 2012 at 4:10 pm

#3 Plenty of quacks in education research too…..

34 RM October 2, 2012 at 6:50 pm

Yes, but they do not get write ups in the NYT like medical research.

35 JML October 3, 2012 at 1:29 am

Thank you RM for a semi-serious answer. I would add:

4. Hard as it is to reliably measure outcomes – success and failure – in medical research, it is even much harder to do so in education research. That leads some to practice fakery and un-rigorousness which taints the whole enterprise in everyone’s minds.

36 improbable October 2, 2012 at 2:19 pm

Can anyone point out any serious results that have come out of education research?

I don’t think I could quite get to 140 recent medical advances, but…

37 Dave E October 3, 2012 at 11:27 am

I think this is the most likely explanation. Medical research generates a visible, measurable, and beneficial payback. Education research does not. The current state of education does not provide any evidence that education research has in any way improved the delivery or effectiveness of education in this country.

38 Andrew' October 2, 2012 at 2:24 pm

1. The victims…I mean beneficiaries of education improvements don’t vote.
2. Medical research is inherently expensive relative to education.
3. Accounting definition confusion (a lot of education and medicine are research and maybe medicine is better accounted for as research).
4. We do research in the practice of education just as in the practice of medicine, we just don’t do as well capturing the data.
5. We don’t see a lot of obvious ways to improve education from education (as opposed to waiting for the internet to save the day which won’t be accounted as education research).
6. We psychologically don’t accept trial-and-error in education, so we build (palatial I might add) buildings, buy computers, and hire teachers, whereas all medicine is trial-and-error and we oddly accept that easier.
7. We all hate kids.

39 Popeye October 2, 2012 at 2:25 pm

What happened to the “marginal revolution”? What are the returns to education research and medical research?


40 Rahul October 2, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Some years ago Teach For America did a Study to identify what traits best correlated with effective High School Teachers. I believe a part of their conclusion went something like

“Of all things that make a good teacher a Masters degree in Education is absolutely irrelevant; zero correlation.”

41 dearieme October 2, 2012 at 3:42 pm

The trouble with research into education is that any good research is likely to turn up findings that would embarrass the educational powers that be.

42 Doc Merlin October 2, 2012 at 4:52 pm


43 Anthony October 2, 2012 at 4:23 pm

That’s a better result than I’d have expected. After all, unlike per-pupil expenditure, there isn’t a *negative* correlation.

44 primedprimate October 3, 2012 at 11:26 am

‘Marginal’ was the first word that came to my mind as well. Perhaps Tyler has a good reason for comparing the Total Expenditure on education versus health as opposed to the Marginal Benefit of the last dollar spent on each of those alternatives?

45 Platonite October 2, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Return on investment is really hard to measure.
Also, after 3,000 years of civilization we still don’t know what to teach or how to educate efficiently.
Great teachers often have a knack and don’t come from education schools.
Since Socrates made the point, it’s been clear that if the parents/community really cared about education, the kids would turn out better.
Medical research might help me directly one day, but it’s too late for research about educating kids to have more than a vague and indirect benefit for me.
Healing the body is not much like improving the soul through education. The better analogy to the body is exercise.

46 Francesca October 2, 2012 at 2:56 pm

No mention of the extremely high regulatory costs for medical research?

47 Kevin October 2, 2012 at 3:09 pm

1) For various reasons a unit of medical research costs substantially more than a unit of educational research. A $100,000 grant goes a long way in education research (or social sciences research more generally), but that’s peanuts in some medical sub-fields.

2) The return on investment is (perceived to be) higher for medical research. There’s always some amazing technology just around the corner in medical research – something that will add years to our lives or improve late-stage quality of life. On its face it’s a field that at least looks promising. Compare that with education research. If you matched medical research funding in education research funding, do you think children a decade in the future would be proportionately smarter/more learned. I don’t.

3) From a public choice perspective, medical research is sexier.than education research; promising to fund it wins more votes. Related to (2), people can point at medical research with it’s artificial organs and nanoprobes and whatever and think to themselves, “Wow! This stuff will be amazing in 10-20 years!”. People, or the ones who even bother to look anyways, basically see education research struggling to evaluate the effectiveness of digitizing text books on desktop computers. “Welcome to 1998”, they think to themselves.

4) Probably relating to all of the above: the state controls the implementation of most education, rather than simply its funding. Even if there were some demonstrable means of modestly improving education generated through research, the odds that it would rapidly (ever?) be widely implemented are relatively low. So what’s the point in doing the research to begin with? Compare with medical research findings, where a great number of people and institutions can profit handsomely by implementing even marginally better technologies or systems.

Any or all of those, I imagine.

48 Steven Kopits October 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Unsurprizingly, investments are often linked to the opportunities to gain returns on them.

Consider: In the five years to 2003, oil companies invested 43% of their theoretical revenues (oil prices x global crude and lease condensate production) in upstream (exploration and production) capital expenditures. In the five years ending 2012, oil companies will have invested 21% of theoretical revenues in upstream capex. Now, the upstream capex budget has doubled over the period, but oil prices have quadrupled.

How should we interpret this data? Perhaps the government take has become much larger, and net benefits from drilling are less (and this is certainly true). But perhaps the oil companies have fewer places to drill for oil.

49 Tom West October 2, 2012 at 3:19 pm

While the FDA may limit a lot of the useful outcomes of medical research, it has nothing compared to the institutional forces that make any developments from education research unimplementable.

50 Nick October 2, 2012 at 3:26 pm

Something nobody has brought up yet,

if you tell someone you’re doing research on education, and they ask what you’re studying, they will then proceed to tell you what your results are going to be. They’re usually wrong, but the point remains that a large portion of the public thinks of education research (and social science research in general) as a waste of money because they could just figure out the answer themselves with common sense. Medical research doesn’t have that problem.

51 Rahul October 2, 2012 at 4:16 pm

One problem is that policy-makers start with bad teachers and then try to compensate with fancy techniques ( “research” ).

It’s like hiring a bunch of horrible chefs and then giving them expensive stoves and expecting good food.

52 Anthony October 2, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Fast food chains have partially solved that problem. They also spend a lot of money on research, though I don’t know if it’s as much as a billion dollars.

53 Roy October 3, 2012 at 1:58 am

Food Science research knows a heck of a lot more about the ingredients they have than anyone in Education knows about their students.

54 Sam October 3, 2012 at 3:01 pm

Fast food chains have solved (mostly) the problem of getting consistent food ready efficiently, with the constraint that the “chef” is on minimum wage, doesn’t read very well and was hired yesterday. I’d like to think that with education, we were aiming a little higher up the quality scale than a Big Mac.

55 Brian Holtz October 2, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Maybe the correct comparison is not with medical research, but with research about medical research.

56 Lonely Libertarian October 2, 2012 at 4:02 pm

I do think the path the Steve K is suggesting is what makes this make sense..

There is little or no opportunity in education – institutional barriers limit the ability to implement any learning…

The opportunity in medicine is both huge and protected [patents].

But I also think there are time factors at work – medical trials can take a very long time – but once concluded the “lag” to results/profits is relatively short. In education – advances are probably one to two generations away from having an impact on results/profits.

57 Bill October 2, 2012 at 4:05 pm

The question that was rarely asked:

What was the source of the poster’s data of the amount spent on educational research.

I’ve searched and haven’t found it.

Point me to the data. Otherwise this is pixy dust. Look at the post::::The guy doesn’t cite any data, and then try finding what is total education research and what is total medical research.

Good luck.

58 Bill October 2, 2012 at 4:07 pm

data means data source.

59 mbutu omalley October 2, 2012 at 4:08 pm

The natural solution is educational research needs to study ways to directly imprint information in the human brain. That way education research can start pulling money from that sweet medical research pot. Less drastically they should pursue medical means to improve student learning. I’ll start writing a proposal to add adderall to the school lunches.

60 mw October 2, 2012 at 4:12 pm

is this question for real? Many lasers are $250,000. Let’s start there.

61 Doc Merlin October 2, 2012 at 4:15 pm

When treatments for new diseases are created, there is an entirely new market created. When a new educational tool is created it displaces other educational tools. This means that the educational market (if not education itself) is more zero sum. Participants in zero sum markets have massive incentives to use the state to prevent market disruption.

62 Willitts October 2, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Uh, maybe because medical research is actual science and most education research is not.

63 Floccina October 2, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Isn’t education research a part of psychology, sociology and even economics research? I would expect the education research money to be spent mostly in the psychology area.

64 Willitts October 2, 2012 at 8:30 pm

All those people with Ed.D. degrees have to write something, at least once.

65 Heedless October 3, 2012 at 1:20 pm

‘Raising consciousness: a Marxian perspective on race, gender, and queer identity in the Milwaukee public school system’

66 Dagon October 2, 2012 at 4:26 pm

Pretty easy to answer – go ask Robin Hanson. Which topic is a better signal to your allies that you care? Which topic is easier to capture rents on?

67 Bill October 2, 2012 at 5:08 pm

Another question that is rarely asked:

Why do we have posts here that do not cite the source of their data so that you can verify claims?

Define and find the sources for “educational research” and “medical research”.

68 Niklas Hägg October 2, 2012 at 5:18 pm

In Sweden the figure for Educational research is 0, I’ve checked. That was worse than finding out that (*spoiler alert*) Santa Claus isn’t real.

69 Doc Merlin October 2, 2012 at 7:26 pm

Yet they have one of the best primary and secondary educational systems in the world.

70 Anthony October 3, 2012 at 2:04 am

So why would they need to do research, then?

71 Stian Westlake October 2, 2012 at 5:42 pm

Dick Nelson of Columbia wrote a good paper on this a few years ago, “On the Uneven Evolution of Human Know-How”. His argument is that we are much better at devising and appraising technological innovations (e.g., new drugs) than social ones (e.g., new types of schools). Therefore the ROI of social innovation is lower, therefore we invest less in it.

Link here: (hope it works)

72 JasonL October 3, 2012 at 11:48 am

This makes a ton of sense to me. Even if there is some actual return on educational innovation, nobody agrees how to meausure it and the prime movers in education insist their contributions are incalculable. There are some areas of medicine that would lead you to think that dollars are being allocated based on some kind of performance, but there is almost no area of education where you really believe the allocation of funds has a meaningful effect on outcomes. It’s the case of an imperfect and highly distorted market still being 140X better than the complete absence of competition and accountability that exists in education.

73 Master of None October 2, 2012 at 6:33 pm

Low hanging fruit, Tyler?

74 The Original D October 2, 2012 at 7:12 pm

It’s easier to sell a pain killer than a vitamin. Education is vitamins.

75 derek October 2, 2012 at 8:38 pm

Obviously what is needed for education research are labs where infectious materials cannot escape.

The question is ridiculous.

76 8 October 2, 2012 at 11:02 pm

Imagine if medical research involved “reinventing the aspirin” to create a new aspirin that was 90% less effective. Nobody would invest in that either.

77 McMonster October 2, 2012 at 11:06 pm

Its much easier to get proper control groups in medical research, especially in the earlier stages; we can’t test new education techniques on rats, for instance, in the way we can with drugs.

78 V October 3, 2012 at 1:52 am

Agree with a lot of the above and believe that the difference is multifactorial.

Also, note that IQ has a large and potentially determinative effect on educational outcomes. While that is true to some extent in medicine (e.g., rates of compliance, etc.), it is nowhere near that large of an effect and so medical research is almost certainly going to be more productive than educational research (ignoring the institutional barriers, etc).

Historically, one can also observe that has been the case.

79 Mike in Qingdao October 3, 2012 at 2:17 am

Wealthy old people will pay for expensive new drugs and treatments. Educational research, not so much.

Also, voters skew old.

80 David Wright October 3, 2012 at 5:15 am

At least some medical research has yielded truly spectacular returns, adding literally billions of quality-adjusted years-of-life. Anesthesia, Vaccines, antibiotics, diagnostic imaging, heart and cancer treatments just to name a few. What is the last development in education that showed even a significant productivity jump? Maybe the invention of public schooling 200 years ago? There is zero evidence that education research yields the kind of breakthroughs that could justify significantly increased funding.

81 lonely Libertarian October 3, 2012 at 8:54 am

David – I was with you through antibiotics…

But the “returns” on diagnostic imaging, heart and cancer treatments are not “spectacular” – they may in fact be negative when taken as a whole [some positives – some not so much – some actually negative].

But perhaps herein lies a clue – we [as a society] are willing to place very large “bets” on things which if successful will have spectacular results [up to immortality] but we are less willing to place even large bets on things which will only make life better [at the margins]

82 careless October 3, 2012 at 9:56 am

And the last revolutionary technology in education is what, literacy?

83 Steve Sailer October 3, 2012 at 5:57 am

Education research used to be popular and prestigious: Congress included one million dollars in the 1964 Civil Rights Act to fund the Coleman Report to document that the cause of lower black school achievement was lower funding. Unfortunately, James Coleman reported that that didn’t seem to be true, which kicked off the decline of interest in stringent education research.

The problem with education research is that when done honestly, it tends to generate hatestats.

84 chuck martel October 3, 2012 at 10:44 am

Medicine advances human health and happiness. Education advances economic productivity and happiness.

Where does this concept that medicine, education, improvements in technology, etc. produce happiness come from? Is there a happiness continuum that originated in the mists of antiquity, when everyone was unhappy, and has now reached the point where many people are real happy but will be even happier in the future when the IPhone 22 comes out and there’s a vaccine for hypochondria?

85 R Richard Schweitzer October 3, 2012 at 12:49 pm

“Both are services that developed democracies have decided all citizens are entitled to regardless of birth, station or resources.” TC

Now, it may be that within those societies in which the conditions necessary and sufficient for the process of democracy are extant (Democracy is a process not a condition) consensus has been formed as to the utility or morality of providing all members access to the designated “services,” there is not confirmed consensus as to how that access shall be provided or by whom; thus, there is not consensus on the nature of, or assignment of, the obligations which are necessary for such availability of such access to be an “entitlement.”

We will leave aside the issue of collectivism reflected in reification implicit in “democracies” deciding.

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