When we think of infrastructure, we tend to think of the facilities and systems required for a country to function and thrive—roads, bridges, tunnels, airports and railways, as President Donald Trump specified in his February 28 speech to Congress.
Potholes and crumbling edifices clearly indicate that something needs fixing. But knowledge is infrastructure, too, and right now it needs urgent attention. Science and technology are the basis of the modern economy and key to solving many serious environmental, social and security challenges. Basic research, driven by curiosity, freedom and imagination, provides the groundwork for all applied research and technology. And just as we have to break the endless cycle of Band-Aid fixes to roads and rails, long-term investments in knowledge are vital.
Curiosity-driven basic research has brought truly revolutionary transformations, such as the rapid growth of computer-based intelligence and the discovery of the genetic basis of life. Albert Einstein's century-old theory of relativity is used every day in our GPS devices. Perhaps the best U.S. government investment ever was the $4.5-million grant from the National Science Foundation that led to the Google search algorithm—an investment that has multiplied by more than 100,000 times.
Basic research not only radically alters our deep understanding of the world, it also leads to new tools and techniques that spread throughout society, such as the World Wide Web, originally developed for particle physicists to foster scientific collaboration. It trains the sharpest minds on the toughest challenges, and its products are widely used by industry and society. No one can exclusively capture its rewards—it is a truly public good.
The path from exploratory basic research to practical applications is not one-directional and linear, but rather it is complex and cyclic. The resulting technologies enable even more fundamental discoveries, such as quantum mechanics, which has led to computer chips and other inventions that are responsible for a significant portion of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP).
To tap into the full potential of human intellect and imagination, we need to balance short-term expectations with long-term investment. Just as a financial expert would never recommend forgoing a retirement fund to enrich an already sufficient checking account, we need to advocate for a balanced portfolio of short- and long-term research initiatives. But driven by decreasing funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil and ever shortening time cycles, research is becoming dangerously skewed toward short-term goals that may address current problems but miss out on huge advances in the long term.
It is a worrisome trend that over the past decades both public and private support for basic research have declined as a percentage of GDP. The postwar decades saw an unprecedented worldwide growth of science, including the creation of funding councils such as the National Science Foundation and massive investments in research infrastructure. Recent years have seen a marked retrenchment. Steadily declining public funding is insufficient to keep up with the expanding role of the scientific enterprise in a modern knowledge-based society. The U.S. federal R&D budget, measured as a fraction of GDP, has dropped from a high of 1.92 percent in 1964, at the height of the cold war and the space race, to less than 0.8 percent today. And the budget for the National Institutes of Health has fallen since 2003.
Governments are increasingly directing research funding to tackle important societal challenges, such as transitioning to clean, sustainable energy, battling climate change and preventing worldwide epidemics, all within flat or decreasing budgets. As a consequence, basic research and its budget are given short shrift.
It is human to focus on necessities in times of stress. But investing in basic research, just like saving for retirement, is a prerequisite for ensuring welfare, innovation and societal progress. Long-term investments in basic research are crucial and lead to an even higher goal: the global benefits of embracing the scientific culture of accuracy, truth seeking, critical questioning and dialogue, healthy skepticism, respect for facts and uncertainties, and wonder at the richness of nature and the human spirit.