Boosting science is a good investment

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Congress passed an annual spending package last month that, among other things, makes critical investments in research. However, it was not as expansive or ambitious as it needs to be if we are going to lead as a nation and meet the objectives set by Congress. Pennies pinched now will cost us many dollars later.

Policymakers are considering major legislation to overhaul federal science and innovation policy, and the 2023 funding cycle recently kicked off. That means Congress still has an opportunity to meet the moment and make a once-in-a-generation investment in science and innovation with new funding that will bring major economic returns while bolstering our competitiveness in the international knowledge marketplace. History shows that we have reached a critical moment, but we cannot let politics unrelated to science and innovation be a stumbling block.

The invention of the transistor by William Shockley in 1948, which replaced the need for vacuum tubes and mechanical relays, has been cited as the single greatest invention of the 20th century. It gave rise to small computers in the 1960s. And not long after, transistors were replaced by integrated circuits, and then microchips, which are themselves CPUs, or microprocessing units.

One person with a word processor can now do what 30 people did with typewriters in the 1950s. Suddenly, workers could make instant corrections and print out endless originals, sans carbon copies.

With their ability to store, access, calculate, analyze, determine relationships, and make predictions, these devices have been the single greatest advancement in human productivity. Despite concerns at the time, these inventions did not result in massive unemployment. We saw just the opposite, as the standard of living of the entire nation has risen as a result.

The global sales of microchips exceeded half a trillion dollars last year. But that is but a mere fraction of the actual value of the devices that go into things such as automobiles, cameras, televisions, GPS equipment, smartphones, and, yes, even hotel door locks.

A small investment on behalf of the taxpayer in DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the 1960s produced the Internet, valued at $2.45 trillion just last year. Among other things, DARPA was also responsible for GPS.

Federal support contributed to every one of the more than 350 drugs that were approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) over the last decade — from more effective medications for hypertension, high cholesterol, and heart disease to better cancer treatments.

Given the incredible gains due to these innovations from quality of life and economic prosperity standpoints, the funding that goes into supporting scientific research would be better characterized as an investment rather than a cost. For example, the return on investment of the Human Genome Project, which cost $2.7 billion in 1991, has been nearly 200-fold.

Investments in science and innovation are a down payment on our future. A mere 5 percent investment of the federal budget is reasonable and prudent — to continue advancing science — particularly in the medical field and for laying the groundwork to prepare for pandemics and avoid catastrophic loss of life. However, this amount is far more than our country is investing right now. In fact, several countries around the world, including South Korea and Israel, invest far more than the United States in science as a share of their economies.

Congress should seize this moment to dramatically increase its investment in science and innovation — lest we leave the next transistor on the table, or worse, somebody else invents it and reaps the rewards.

Gary K. Michelson, M.D., is a retired orthopedic surgeon and inventor. He founded and co-chairs the Michelson Philanthropies, which includes the Michelson Medical Research Foundation. Sudip S. Parikh, Ph.D., is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.

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