Friday, March 1, 2013

Post # 78: The Aristocracy Of The Welfare Class

Relative to my last post regarding federally-funded research and development, and with one eye on the upcoming federal budget sequester, I want to relate a funny and thought-provoking story about a conversation I had with a colleague at Oak Ridge National Laboratory some thirty years ago...

One day in the early 1980's,  I and a number of other "early-career" guys (yes, all guys) were sitting around the lunch table bemoaning the lack of support for our favorite R&D programs.  We swapped stories about the challenges of working within the federal R&D enterprise and the struggles we shared in dealing with volatile funding profiles and Washington politics.  Sitting with us (and listening quietly) that day was an older colleague.  I will call him "Henry" for the purposes of this story.  Henry was about the age I am now (late 50's), and had joined ORNL after a long career in the nuclear power industry.  Henry listened for some time to our groaning.  Then, with a twinkle in his eye, and a stroke of his graying red beard, he said in a voice salted with wisdom we were yet to acquire, "Never forget, Gentlemen, WE (speaking of those employed in the federal R&D establishment) are the aristocracy of the welfare class!"

Henry continued to explain that, while we complained about our taxes, our salaries were paid and our labs were equipped by everyone's taxes.  While we complained about federal handouts to various groups, we were at the "top of the federal food chain" when it came to taxpayer support.  Though we bemoaned the inefficiencies of the federal R&D establishment, our laboratory was a major element of that establishment.  And, while we groaned about constant bickering between and within the Legislative and Executive Branches over R&D priorities, we all had elected officials to thank for the continuance of our favored research programs.

Henry did not know it then, and I don't recall telling him later, but his comments that day had a profound impact on my thinking and my career.  For you see, it was at that instant I first recognized what a privilege it is to work in the federal R&D enterprise.

And it was in that instant I began to understand the responsibility those in the federal sector bear to "give back" to the tax payer some tangible positive IMPACT in exchange for the privilege of having their research supported by the taxpayer... the "Societal Contract" I mentioned in my previous post.

It occurs to me as I write this that today I am almost a perfect complement to Henry of thirty years ago.  I'm in my late fifties as he was then.  I've spent most of my career in the federal research enterprise and have now moved into private enterprise.  The vector of mine and Henry's careers have been almost exact opposites in that respect.  Yet the wisdom of Henry words from so long ago still ring in my ears.  Amen Henry! Preach on!

Just thinking...


  1. A genuine pearl of wisdom here--but not limited to Federal R&D. I spent a career in the US Navy and periodically wondered if I was "value-added" in the societal sense or if I at least played a role on a team which was adding value. In most cases, I was able to reasonably rationalize that answer in the affirmative. I do share in Eisenhower's concern that a significant portion of the military-industrial complex (uniformed included) is focused on self-perpetuation which may have very little to do with keeping a balanced and trained defense.

  2. Reid,

    Thanks for the comment. As the years go by, and as I've made my way forward in the private sector, I'm increasingly-convinced Henry was right. Oh by the way... thank you for your service to our country.