Neglecting research today threatens US innovation tomorrow
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Looking back, it is sometimes easy to see how basic scientific research benefits our society and our economy. But, early on in the process of scientific discovery, it’s not always clear what research will result in life-changing innovations.

For example, biologists discover a peculiar cellular pathway. Understanding that pathway points the way to developing drugs that can fight retroviruses, helping millions with HIV keep their infections from developing into full-blown AIDS.

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Mathematicians study methods for organizing information. Applying the work to cataloging digital libraries, two Stanford graduate students develop an algorithm called Page Rank. Then they make the entire worldwide web their library, and Google is born.

 

Imaging scientists learn to gather large data sets from multiple sensors, analyze them with powerful computers, and create 3D images. When combined with insights from nuclear physicists, we get MRIs to guide diagnosticians and surgeons. Or introduce those insights to geologists studying the structure of shale who find ways to map underground gas deposits, which can be tapped via hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, and results in the shale gas revolution.

Scientists are trained to look to the future, disrupt what we know, and imagine what is not yet possible. And that scientific discovery is the foundation of our economy. Research based on work by economist Robert M. Solow has demonstrated that science and technology have been responsible for more than half of all U.S. economic growth since World War II.

So who pays for the bulk of the long-term, high-risk scientific research that fuels our economy? Not industry. Private companies primarily focus on revenue-generating products, and the number investing in corporate laboratories that include basic research scientists has dwindled.

Federal agencies, with bipartisan support, are the primary investor of cutting-edge basic research that fuels industry’s ability to harness that knowledge into innovative products and business. But federal budgets, in real terms, have shrunk. Excellent research proposals, given the highest rankings by peer-reviewed scientists, go unfunded.

This problem is exacerbated by the 2011 Budget Control Act that ushered in drastic and long-term cuts to discretionary spending through 2023. Even with some bipartisan short-term relief provided by Congress, researchers find they are facing long odds when applying for federal funds — odds that will get even longer if the original spending limits return this coming October.

Federal funding for basic research is essential. Without it, we are threatening our ability to continue to innovate.

A report released today — The Future Postponed 2.0: Why Underinvestment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit — provides concrete examples of the scientific advances that are at risk if federal support for cutting-edge basic research remains anemic.

At the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, researchers are creating a census of the thousands of cell types in the human body — something that’s never been done before — to better understand health and disease.

Research at UCLA identified a new generation of telescope technology that provides insights on black holes, dark matter, and extrasolar planets. Scientists at Emory University are mapping biological markers — like toxin exposure and nutrition impacts — adding the nurture side of the story to the nature side revealed from the Human Genome Project.

Researchers at Stanford University are developing nanoscale catalysts that could bring us cheaper and cleaner fuels and fertilizers. Research at New York University and the University of Washington into the circadian clock — a process shared across organisms from plants to humans — could eventually unlock secrets in agriculture, medicine, and human aging.

The Future Postponed 2.0 report presents only a very few examples of the many important research areas for which top scientists now struggle to find funding. This gives concrete proof to Congress of the need for federal funding for basic research.

The United States has led the world in basic research since WWII. But we do not have a monopoly on scientific talent, and leadership is not preordained. We’ve taught the world that basic research is a vital component of a successful innovation system. Other countries are now taking that lesson to heart.

It is impossible to know precisely what will remain undiscovered if U.S. scientists are idled by funding shortages, or what will be discovered elsewhere. The path from basic research to practical payoff is neither short nor straight. But history has proven that these investments, and the journey, yield big payoffs in terms of stimulating innovation and our economy.

Rush Holt is the CEO of The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Maria T. Zuber is the chair of the National Science Board and the E. A. Griswold Professor of Geophysics and vice president for Research at MIT.


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