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Gambling with U.S. Science

August 23, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 34

As President Bush and Sen. Kerry turn up the heat on their debate over economic policy, it's easy to forget that basic research plays a central role in sustaining U.S. leadership in science and in creating high-wage jobs. The formula is as certain as it gets in economics: Research investments spark innovation, which fosters productivity and job growth, which drive the economy. Yet budget pressures and the lack of a national science and technology strategy are driving down federal investments in research. This is a dangerous gamble at a time when the stakes could not be higher.

U.S. leadership in science and technology used to be a foregone conclusion. No longer. The European Union, China, Japan, India, Russia, and other nations are rapidly building scientific capabilities that rival ours--as evidenced by more U.S. companies moving science and engineering jobs and facilities offshore and by fewer international students applying for U.S. graduate programs in science and engineering.

Is our technological leadership slipping? If so, how will that affect our ability to generate future breakthroughs and high-wage jobs? These questions are not being asked often enough in Washington, D.C. Instead, the President's budget request cuts basic research at the Departments of Energy and of Defense, and the House of Representatives recently slashed National Science Foundation research. Because these agencies dominate federal investments in nonmedical research, our elected leaders are running a very risky national experiment at a pivotal time in U.S. history.

Like a thoroughbred in a race without a finish line, science runs nonstop for the American people. Our military supremacy, industrial strength, and quality of life depend heavily on it. However, if we leave critical areas unexplored, we will fall back in science and create a void other nations are certain to fill. To keep pace, we must make sustained and smart investments in basic research.

The trend toward flat research budgets is troubling because basic research supported by NSF and other agencies ensures a steady stream of scientific discoveries that can transform entire industries and even create new ones. While the nation's sluggish job growth is gaining much attention, too little attention is being paid to America's long-standing reliance on innovative new industries to create high-wage jobs. No one knows which next big innovation will produce a wave of new jobs, although biotechnology, nanotechnology, and renewable energy are strong contenders. But we do know that major job-producing innovations stem from strong basic research investments.

The American public believes in job growth through innovation. In fact, in a recent poll, more than 70% of Americans said the nation spends too little on basic research. If the U.S. is to continue to lead the way in the creation of new technologies and jobs, we can't afford to put federal research on hold. Today, federal research investment is less than 1% of GDP--less than half the rate of the 1960s. In other nations, the rate is much higher.

In a competitive global market, where corporate time horizons are measured in months rather than years, companies simply cannot provide substantial support for long-term, high-risk research. This is why the government plays such a dominant, irreplaceable role in basic research.

The current budget deficit is clearly a major concern. But cutting investments that eventually generate the growth and revenue sought by policymakers is not the way to solve deficit problems. Cutting basic research is like cutting your child's education fund during tough times: It will compound the problem over the long haul.

In 1950, Popular Mechanics predicted that "computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons." Today, PDAs have more computing power than NASA mission control had during the Apollo program. We simply have seen too many amazing technological advances not to anticipate the many that lie ahead.

Steps lost in scientific leadership are difficult to regain. So we must ask: Will our nation make the research investments needed to stay a competitive step ahead in the global economy? Or will we hold back and take our chances? Let's not roll the dice.

Charles P. Casey,president
American Chemical Society

Helen R. Quinn,president
American Physical Society

Robert D. Wells,past-president
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

David Eisenbud,
president American Mathematical Society

Views expressed on this page are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ACS.



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