Of course, these things are true in principle and in some instances actually true. We'd create more science jobs if we actually did our duty with respect to raising the expectations and standards for our educational programs, especially for undergraduates (but that's not what professors' jobs are all about any more). The extent we really generate usable research that leads to products is something we don't know much about, because industry loves foisting their responsibility (to do research for their company's products) off on the public, while still being secretive and competitive so that most of the key research is done in house. Pharmas are trying to cooperate in their support for basic facts which will then be turned over to their own private (and secret) value-added research.
By buying research from universities, companies impose various levels of privatization of the results (and commercial incentives for faculty), which undermines the proper role of public institutions, and in some ways actually privatizes public research.
Federal research is, in a naturally expectable way, bureaucratized to give it inertia so that program officers' portfolios are stable or enlarged, and prominent investigators' labs (and their universities' general funds), have continuity. That may sound good, but it means safe, incremental work without any serious level of accountability for producing what one promised (here, we refer not just to miracle results, which can't be promised, but things like adequate statistical power to detect what one proposes one has the power to detect, or advances in things like disease therapy that is promised in grant applications.).
One can always crab about this waste of funding generated by the way we know how to work the system in our favor. We ourselves have been regularly funded for decades, so this post is not a matter of sour grapes on our part. But there is, from an anthropological point of view, a broader truth--one that shows in a way the difference between what are called a culture's emics and its etics. The emics are what we say we're all about, and the etics are what an observer can see we are really up to. Here, part of the usually unspoken truth about huge government investments is that citizens are given promises by the priests (the recipients) of some specific good in return for investment. But the momentum and inertia is largely for a different reason. As the Times author says:
Moreover, the $3.8 billion taxpayers invested in the Human Genome Project between 1988 and 2003 helped create and drive $796 billion in economic activity by industries that now depend on the advances achieved in genetics, according to the Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit group that supports research for the industry.So science investments not only created jobs in new industries of the time, like the Internet and nanotechnology, but also the rising tax revenues that made budget surpluses possible.
This is both a post-hoc rationale (one can always look backwards and identify successes and thus try to justify the expense, and its continuation, but is not usually compelled to argue what else, or what better, could have been done by government--or by taxpayers keeping their money--had the policies been different.
At the same time, it's a very legitimate argument. If science investment doesn't lead to a single real advance in health or energy efficiency, but if it does lead to jobs for lots of people, not just including the scientists, but the people who make, transport, market, advertise, and design their gear, their reagents, even their desks and computers, then those funds are circulating in society and in that sense doing good.
It's a poor kind of justification for the investment relative to its purported purpose. But life is complex. Sequencing machines or enzymes or petri-dishes are made by people. The challenge to identify real societal needs (or to decentralize) and achieve success without just building self-interested groups and bureaucracy is a major one. Often it leads to disasters, like wars or poor agricultural management, and so on. But it also is part of the engine of a society, whatever that society's emic delusions about what they're up to may be.