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Michael Hiltzik

Reduced public funding for basic research leaves U.S. in the scientific dust

The biggest threat to U.S. competitiveness is our skimpy spending on science

A new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology lists four landmark scientific achievements of the last year: the first spacecraft landing on a comet; the discovery of a new fundamental particle, the Higgs boson; the development of the world's fastest supercomputer; and new research in plant biology pointing to new ways to meet global food needs.

Then comes the punchline: None of these were U.S.-led achievements. The first two were the products of European-led consortia and credit for the second two belongs to the Chinese.

Widespread concern over "a growing U.S. innovation deficit" is well placed, the report's authors say, at least partially attributable to "declining public investment in research." (See accompanying graphic.)

The MIT report is ominously entitled "The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit." It joins several other studies of the declining public funding of basic research, and its implications for America's economic competitiveness, as well as the nation's health and national security. Almost all the arrows point down and the lights are flashing red. As we've reported, this problem has been developing for a long time. 

In February 2014, the Chronicle of Higher Education surveyed more than 67,000 researchers with grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. The publication compiled a dismal picture from the 11,000 responses it received.

Nearly half the respondents had been forced by economic pressures to abandon an area of investigation they thought "central to their lab's mission." More than three-quarters had been forced to pare back their recruitment of graduate students and research fellows. Nearly half were advising their students to seek careers outside academia or abroad. 

Around the same time, the National Science Foundation documented the decline in the economic and academic stability of America's army of basic scientists: The percentage of science and engineering doctorate holders with full-time faculty appointments had fallen to 75% in 2010 from 90% in the early 1970s. Fewer were receiving tenure, more were employed as postdoctoral fellows or in other nonfaculty positions.

The MIT report, which includes contributions from more than two dozen faculty members, cites 15 research areas in which American leadership is jeopardized, diminishing or extinct. They include cybersecurity, and quantum information technologies; fusion energy and battery technology (dominated by Asia); infectious diseases and Alzheimer's. (The report goes a bit awry in terming the discovery of the Higgs boson an achievement of 2014--the particle actually was discovered in 2012, though research into its properties continued well into 2014.)

The core problem is a decline in investment in basic research, the authors say. This is tantamount to mortgaging our scientific future because it deprives industry of the crucial seeds of the "development" component of R&D.

"Basic research is often misunderstood, because it often seems to have no immediate payoff," the report states. That means government funding, particularly from federal agencies, is key. Years ago, U.S. industry invested in fundamental research via facilities such as "the now diminished Bell Labs and Xerox Park" (sic: it's Xerox PARC, for "Palo Alto Research Center"). But since the 1980s, such corporate labs have become increasingly tied directly to product development.

That makes public funding even more crucial. It's difficult to muster private investment for a public good, like clean air, that doesn't throw off an immediate profit, or for extremely risky initiatives, "such as novel approaches to new antibiotic drugs," or in areas where the outcome is uncertain. Public investments in those circumstances have given us the interstate highway system, Hoover Dam and the Internet.  

Do our political leaders understand this? It's doubtful. Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle love to pick on public grants to scientific projects whose thumbnail descriptions they can't understand or they can make sound ridiculous. Usually they pair these exercises in caricature with calls for more "practical" research projects, as though these can be conjured out of thin air.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), whose subcommittee oversees funding for the NSF and other research agencies, described to me last month the idea of holding the NSF to a 10-year "blueprint" of project grants.  Some of Culberson's ideas for the agency's research focus, such as quantum computing, indeed appear to be worthy of attention. But the very idea of holding a basic science agency to any sort of long-term blueprint works against the support of basic science, which can lead where you expect, veer off into new directions or yield nothing at all. You don't know until you try. 

Even more dangerously, conservatives' insistence on "practical" research disguises their real goal, which is to quash research on topics they don't like. At the moment, their chief target is research into climate change, which many apparently fear will result in heavier regulation and higher costs for the entrenched fossil fuel industry. But this narrowing of America's research vision will only harm the U.S. and all its citizens. Given the nation's economic resources and brainpower, all that stands between us and preeminence in every field of research, including those lurking in the distant future, is will. 

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


5:12 p.m.: This post has been updated with more detail on the Higgs boson.