If everything is a priority, nothing is

Businesses invest hundreds of billions of dollars each year to convert federally supported research into high-tech inventions, new products and millions of jobs. We depend on taxpayer-financed research to fuel scientific breakthroughs.  Basic research paved the way for the creation of the Internet, natural gas hydraulic fracturing, lasers and countless innovations that touch every aspect of modern life.     

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of our country’s leading academic research institutions, recently issued a report, “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit.” The premise of the report is indisputable. If the U.S. falls behind in technology and innovation, our nation’s economic competitiveness will decline. We will have fewer opportunities and a lower standard of living. Where the MIT report goes astray is in finding only one solution – more taxpayer funding!   

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The MIT report examines whether the U.S. can continue to prosper, or will face economic stagnation while developing nations such as China continue to grow economically. The report proposes a list of 15 scientific research priorities, including agriculture and plant sciences to feed a growing global population, new classes of medicines, and advances in quantum computing.    

These priorities are essential for future economic competitiveness.  But real priorities require making choices. After all, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.  And there are not enough taxpayers’ dollars to fund everything. 

If synthetic biology research at the National Science Foundation (NSF) is a priority, we should stop funding reviews of animal photographs in National Geographic magazine. If advanced lasers research is a priority, we can’t afford to send more researchers to Norway to survey local merchants about tourism. If robotics and batteries are priorities, we cannot continue to spend taxpayers’ dollars on climate change musicals.

The America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2015, legislation I introduced that the House will consider this week, sets priorities aimed at stimulating economic competitiveness and growth.  Our bill increases funding for the physical sciences and biology, from which come most of the scientific breakthroughs with the potential to stimulate new industries and jobs. Funding is cut for lower priority areas, including social and behavioral science, redundant climate research, and subsidies for private companies. 

Studying human-set fires in New Zealand, pasture management in Mongolia, and basket-weaving techniques in Alaska can be commendable work. And I support academic freedom for our nation’s scientists so they can research whatever fields they like. Maybe private philanthropies should consider underwriting such endeavors.

But taxpayers’ dollars should be focused on national priorities. The progress of science in the United States as well as our future economic and national security depends on making smart investments in science and prioritizing research. 

Several recent media reports have suggested that the America COMPETES Act is part of a scheme to undermine climate science. The Obama administration has drastically increased spending on climate change studies across the federal government. According to the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, from 2008 to 2013 the Obama administration spent $77 billion on climate change activities across 13 different federal agencies.  

All of this spending has come at the expense of other worthy scientific endeavors. For example, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) has seen its budget grow by nearly 60 percent under the Obama administration. EERE’s $2.7 billion budget request for fiscal year 2016 is more than double the budgets for nuclear, fossil and electricity research and development at DOE combined. It’s time to re-balance the scales. 

The America COMPETES Act sets priorities for research funding in areas that will provide meaningful returns to hardworking American taxpayers. Too many important research subjects go underfunded: nuclear energy research that could revolutionize the energy industry, interdisciplinary research to understand how the brain works, or research to advance the next generation of fast computing.  

Setting priorities and making tough choices means that not everyone is going to be happy. To focus on scientific research that could boost economic competitiveness and growth is a good investment and the best use of taxpayers’ dollars. 

Smith has represented Texas’ 21st Congressional District since 1987. He is chairman of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee and also sits on the Homeland Security and the Judiciary committees.