Politico Op-ed Urges R&D Funding

The bipartisan budget deal reached in late 2013 was praiseworthy, AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner said in a newly published Politico op-ed, but more must be done to counteract the decades-long decline in federal funding for research and development.

The Politico piece, co-authored by Paul Stoffels, M.D., chief scientific officer and worldwide chairman of pharmaceuticals at Johnson & Johnson, noted that U.S. federal R&D expenditures declined by 16.3 percent, in constant dollars, between fiscal years 2010 and 2013. China's investment in R&D from all sources, meanwhile, has jumped by more than 400 percent over the past decade, while South Korea's has more than doubled. In the United States, however, federal support for science as a share of the economy now stands at roughly 0.82 percent, the lowest point in 50 years, according to the op-ed.

America still invests more total dollars in R&D, compared with those countries. Yet, "U.S. growth has been much slower than many of its peers', and as a share of the economy we invest only slightly more in R&D than we did in the year 2000," Leshner and Stoffels wrote.

While U.S. industry chipped in $249 billion toward the country's total 2011 R&D investment of $414 billion, the Politico op-ed emphasized that "industry cannot do it alone." Worldwide, the authors argued, "governments must provide adequate support -- especially for basic science, which promises big payoffs but requires the longer-term, sustainable funding that can be impractical for the private sector." Such support is essential for speeding medical advances as 67 million Americans suffer from high blood pressure, 13 million have cancer, 5 million have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and the number of people with diabetes more than tripled between 1980 and 2011.

Sadly, the Politico op-ed noted, National Institutes of Health R&D expenditures since 2010 "have dropped by $3.7 billion, or 11.5 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars, and in those terms, the agency's total budget is now at its lowest level since 2001." R&D investments are treated as a "discretionary" part of the federal budget. This category of expenditures has been declining since the 1980s, said Matthew Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program.

As policymakers work to actually appropriate funds under the budget deal, Leshner and Stoffels urged greater support for U.S. innovation through "a balanced fiscal approach." In this way, they wrote, "the United States can send a strong signal to young people worldwide that it understands the importance of basic science for improving the economy and human welfare."