The 114th U.S. Congress, infused with 71 new members elected last fall, will begin to hammer out a federal budget this month. In an era of tight spending and lingering economic malaise, this Congress—and the White House—might be tempted to limit funding for basic science in favor of applied research that has more direct payoffs. Politicians of both major parties have done so before. We urge them not to do it again and to instead renew a law that is vital to basic research.
It is easy to make fundamental science sound wasteful and silly. Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has made recent headlines by questioning National Science Foundation grants he deems “frivolous,” such as studies of the mechanics of bicycle riding or the chemistry of plant gases.
But even a cursory look at the facts demonstrates that basic research drives innovation. The pages of this magazine have featured abundant examples of purely theoretical work that have led to practical gains. Albert Einstein was simply curious about the nature of space and time, for instance, when he developed his general theory of relativity; now we rely on that theory to synchronize the clocks on GPS satellites. The late senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin famously lambasted “wasteful spending” on a study of the sex life of the parasitic screwworm fly. But that research saved the U.S. cattle industry about $20 billion by helping to control the insect, a livestock pest. Proxmire later apologized.
So many seemingly esoteric studies have led to practical benefits that Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee began celebrating them in 2012 with the Golden Goose Awards. Last year a physicist won because his computer simulations of black holes led to software advances that, in the 1990s, produced the first easy-to-use Web browser—followed by a new economy of Web-based businesses.
The $3.8-billion federal investment in the Human Genome Project between 1990 and 2003 added $796 billion to the economy, estimates Battelle Technology Partnership Practice. Economists have calculated that a third to a half of U.S. economic growth since World War II has come from basic research.
This is why recent spending trends are worrying. A growing share of U.S. research is funded by the private sector, whose money shifts around quickly based on short-term corporate needs and tends to focus on applied, rather than basic, research. Government investment, in contrast, is considered crucial to the success of basic research because it is continuous. Yet it has generally declined for a decade as Congress has tried to squeeze budgets. In 2013 cuts from congressionally mandated budget sequestration caused the largest reduction in federal R&D spending in 40 years, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Both political parties are to blame: federal science budgets declined during periods when Democrats controlled both chambers (2007–2011) and when Republicans did so (2005–2007).
This reduction is hurting the ability of the U.S. to compete with other countries. As charted by the World Bank, Sweden, Japan, Israel, Austria, South Korea and Germany, among others, each invest a larger share of their gross domestic product on research than the U.S. does. China is on track to overtake the U.S. by the early 2020s, reports the “2014 Global R&D Funding Forecast” by Battelle and R&D Magazine.
There is a way to fix this. It starts with a law, the America COMPETES Act, signed by then president George W. Bush in 2007. The law sets up funding goals for several agencies, including three that support much of the basic science in this country: the nsf, the Department of Energy's Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Yet Congress has never appropriated enough money to meet the act's targets, and the financing has now expired.
This spring lawmakers in Congress should reauthorize the act and fund it completely. Action now, history tells us, will produce impressive long-term returns on this investment.