This article is from the In-Depth Report In Defense of Science

Why Science Is Important

Our own track record proves that steady federal funding support leads to success
Mariette DiChristina, Vinton Cerf, Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee

Vinton Cerf (left) and Mariette DiChristina (right) look at the first issue of Scientific American prior to a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee July 17, 2014 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
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As editor in chief and senior vice president, I’ve given talks to a range of audiences about why science is important to humanity’s future wellbeing. But Thursday, July 17, was not the typical discussion: I was privileged to join three science experts as witnesses at the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing, “The Federal Research Portfolio: Capitalizing on Investments in R&D.” The hearing considered the federal government’s role in research and development (R&D), and the nation’s STEM education and outreach initiatives.

Others in the Capitol hearing room were Vinton G. Cerf, computer scientist, Google’s Internet Evangelist and one of the fathers of the Internet; Neal F. Lane, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Stephen E. Fienberg, professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University.

Recognizing the need for long-term investments in science and technology, Congress passed the America COMPETES Acts of 2007 and 2010 to significantly increase federal R&D budgets, to promote STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education and to support the innovation necessary for economic growth.

Each witness had five minutes to make verbal remarks in addition to the written testimony. Below is a text of mine. This In-Depth Report includes all of the full-length testimonies, a video of the hearing and other articles about funding and basic research.

Thank you, Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Thune, and the Committee, for the privilege of addressing you today.

My name is Mariette DiChristina, and I’m the editor in chief of Scientific American, which has chronicled the power of U.S. basic research since its founding in 1845.

Scientific American started the first branch of the U.S. patent agency in 1850, and Thomas Edison is among the researchers who’ve visited our offices. Albert Einstein wrote for Scientific American, as have more than 150 Nobel laureates and many winners of the U.S. National Medals of Science and Technology. It reaches more than 3.5 million in print and more than 6 million each month online, including leaders in business and policy, educators, students and science enthusiasts.

Science is the engine of prosperity. Economists have said that a third to a half of U.S. economic growth has resulted from basic research since World War II. The cars and trains that got us here today, our smart phones, the energy that lights this chamber, the clothes we wear, the food we eat: All of these were developed and improved through research.

But before these applications existed, researchers had to study the basic concepts that provided a sound foundation—and they did those studies not necessarily knowing where they would lead. I know Einstein wasn’t thinking about GPS in smart phones when he formulated his theory of relativity a hundred years ago. But knowing how spacetime works helps make our measurements from orbiting GPS satellites accurate.

And Elizabeth Blackburn was just curious about what’s at the end of chromosomes when she started studying the DNA of pond scum in the 1970s. The NIH started funding her work in 1978. In 2009, she and fellow NIH grantees, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, won a Nobel for their work in understanding what’s at the end of those chromosomes—structures called telomeres, which we now know play an important role in human cancers and diseases of aging.

Examples like Elizabeth Blackburn show why providing steady and sufficient support for basic research should be a national priority. We need to take the long view on R&D for the nation’s future, just as we need to nurture our children over their entire K-12 careers, so they can succeed in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Research takes time. Typical funding grants average five years long. It takes time to run the experiments, gather the data, analyze it properly, and confirm the findings.

And our own track record proves that steady federal funding support leads to success. U.S. federal funding was key to nearly 90 percent of almost 100 top innovations from 1971 to 2006 identified by R&D Magazine.

Our nation’s ability to handle today’s pressing issues, from providing energy security to curing illnesses to living sustainably in a finite world, will require the innovations that arise from basic research.

It also provides a good return. In a particularly strong example, the Human Genome Project paid back $141 in jobs and growth for each dollar invested. In general, the return for publicly funded R&D is between 30 and 100 percent.

Basic research can be inspiring. The Zooniverse Web site, for instance, lets anybody catalog heavenly objects from NASA images. It has more than a million volunteer citizen scientists! Thousands of Scientific American’s own volunteers catalogued more than 100,000 whale calls in 2 months—equal to 2 years of lab work. The Maker movement is such a phenomenon that the U.S. Office of Science & Technology Policy is holding Maker Faire events.

Unfortunately, since the 1980s, R&D spending overall has flattened and even declined in real dollars, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office on R&D and Productivity Growth. Because of the length of time needed for research, also, the sequester cuts will affect progress for years to come in forestalled and canceled work, and will disproportionately affect and discourage our younger researchers.

Meanwhile, countries such as China are nipping at our heels. Earlier this year, China’s rate of GDP investment surpassed that of the 28 member states of the European Union, and could exceed that of the U.S. itself in a little over half a decade, according to the 2014 Global R&D Forecast by Battelle and R&D Magazine. Japan, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel and Sweden already spend a greater percentage of their GDP on research than the U.S., according to World Bank.

A strong STEM education pipeline is also critical. Over the past 10 years, STEM jobs grew 3x as fast as non-STEM, says the U.S. Department of Commerce, and our leading technology companies are often challenged to fill the necessary openings.

For one more view, I turned to a member of the next generation. I told my older daughter, Selina, who plans to double major in computer science and graphic design, that I'd be speaking about this topic. I asked her what she would say about science.

“That’s easy, mom,” she said to me. “It’s the foundation of everything.”

And so it is. Science is a system for exploring, and for innovation. It can fuel our nation’s economic growth. It can form a path for our young people in a competitive global marketplace. And it can fire our imagination.

That’s why basic-science research deserves our steady commitment and investment. Thank you for your kind attention.

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