Government budget cuts and the crisis in scientific research

The U.S. is a big spender on science, but not enough.
(Battelle Memorial Institute)

A couple of reminders of America’s seeming determination to turn its scientific pastures into wastelands arrived this week, and the picture is scary.

One came courtesy of the embassy of Sweden, which earlier this week hosted nine new American Nobel laureates for a symposium about their work. (Hat tip to Business Insider for catching the event first.) Prompted by questions from the audience, the discussion turned to the sorry state of government funding for basic research in the U.S. As Yale’s James E. Rothman, one of three laureates in medicine, observed, the purchasing power of grants from the National Institutes of Health has declined by 28% over the last seven or eight years.


What’s worse, he said, is that much of that funding is going to bureaucratically dictated research, not to promising young scientists following their noses in basic science. “I doubt very much that in today’s environment I would have been able to do the work that led to my sitting here today,” he said.

Berkeley’s Randy W. Schekman, a co-winner in medicine, said that the drying up of funding in the U.S. is reversing the trend of researchers coming to the U.S. from abroad to make their discoveries. “Scholars from Europe and Asia who came here specifically because of funding opportunities are now returning to their countries.” Those countries now are much more attuned than America to “the promise of investing in basic science.”


The damage is enduring, Rothman stated. Over five years, World War II destroyed Europe’s 50-year record of “leadership in chemistry, physics, took 50 years to rebuild. We are absolutely as vulnerable today....We are really at a danger point right now.”

A second warning shot was published this week by Science. Adapted from a speech delivered more than a year ago by William H. Press of the University of Texas, then the president of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the piece documented how much basic research has contributed to the growth of the U.S. economy, and therefore how much is at risk from government’s declining investment.


Basic research leading to scientific discovery is... a public good,” Press wrote. “It will benefit all.” But because it’s hard for private enterprise to extract direct benefits from it, the private sector underinvests in it. That’s why the government role is crucial.

But over the last 50 years, the government’s share of total research and development funding has fallen from more than 60% to about 30%. That’s seed corn that’s not getting planted. Meanwhile, industry investment in basic research is stagnating. As the graphic above shows, America’s investment in basic research handily outstrips that of all other industrialized countries--but as a percentage of gross domestic product we’re behind Korea, Japan, Sweden, Finland and Israel. Consequently, we’re also behind several other countries in scientists and engineers per capita.


The situation, Press says, “is dangerous. Short-term actions in a time of budget crisis and financial austerity might become the triggers of long-term underinvestment in the ultimate fuel of economic growth, basic research in science.”

The right strategy for America, Press says, is to be patient investors. The U.S. is still in the club of nations investing a healthy 3% of their GDP in basic research. But we risk falling out of the club because of the insistence of policy makers on seeing short-term results. Science doesn’t work that way. But if we continue to shortchange our universities and scholars working on basic research, our entire position in the world is threatened.

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