Report: Basic Science Research Is Critical for U.S. Well-Being

Declining federal spending on basic research has raised the threat of an "innovation deficit" in America at a time when competitors are undertaking ambitious projects in areas such as space exploration, supercomputing, cybersecurity, and plant biology, according to a new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that was released at AAAS on 27 April.

The report, "The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit," discusses the impact of cuts in federal research spending and highlights opportunities in basic research that could help shape and maintain U.S. economic power.

"This is important, and I really commend the folks at MIT for putting this together," Rush Holt, AAAS chief executive officer and executive publisher of Science, said in opening remarks at the release of the report.  He said there is "no time to waste" in spotlighting the importance of scientific research for the future well-being of the United States.

"The history of scientific discovery and investigation is really the history of human progress and growth," Holt said. "It's an essential part of science that we believe in progress. It is one of the things that science brings to our society, to our culture."

While the United States remains a dominant force in research across numerous fields, the MIT report cites AAAS figures which show that R&D spending as a share of the total federal budget has declined from nearly 10 percent in 1968 to less than 4 percent in 2015.  Federal R&D spending as a percentage of the nation's gross domestic product also has declined from 1.25 percent in 1977 to 0.78 percent in 2014. The report also notes that basic research has basically disappeared from many U.S. companies, "leaving them dependent on federally-federally funded, university-based basic research to fuel innovation."

2019

The year China’s R&D funding is expected to top that of the U.S.

OECD

Meanwhile, U.S. competitors made some notable advances in 2014, including the first landing of a spacecraft on a comet by the European Space Agency and the development of the world's fastest supercomputer by China. China has been investing heavily in quantum computing and plant biology, the report says, and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) projects that China’s funding of R&D is expected to surpass that of the United States by 2019.

"Basic research is often misunderstood, because it often seems to have no immediate payoff," the MIT report says. "Yet it was just such federally funded research into the fundamental working of cells, intensified beginning with the 'War on Cancer' in 1971, that led over time to a growing arsenal of sophisticated new anticancer therapies — 19 new drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past two years."

It adds, "Do we want similar progress on Alzheimer's, which already affects five million Americans, more than any single form of cancer? Then we should expand research in neurobiology, brain chemistry and the science of aging." Alzheimer's accounts for $150 billion a year in Medicare spending for treatment, the report says, and total costs of public and private spending on the disease are expected to reach $1.2 trillion by 2050.

During a public briefing at AAAS on the new report, MIT faculty members discussed areas in which more spending on basic research could spur substantial payoffs in health, energy, and high-tech industries, including development of new drugs to combat antibiotic resistance; use of quantum computing to improve computational speed and security; fusion energy as a carbon-neutral power source; and using synthetic biology to program biological circuits in novel ways. The report presents 15 case studies in all where a boost in U.S. science spending could help overcome technological challenges and bring potentially game-changing advances.

Holt told the gathering that his experience in public service as a member of Congress from New Jersey had taught him that "People make decisions on the basis of stories.  That's how we think as humans, not with charts and graphs." While the stories must be grounded in facts and data, he said, "It's the story that counts." He applauded the MIT report's emphasis on case studies and specific examples.   

Marc Kastner, a professor of physics at MIT and the chair of the committee that wrote the report, said the university will continue to provide such case studies as part of an ongoing project, with a particular goal of convincing philanthropists to become more involved in funding of basic scientific research. In February, Kastner was named the first president of the Scientific Philanthropy Alliance, a coalition of leading nonprofit institutions and foundations dedicated to increasing investment in basic science research. 

[Credit for associated teaser image: European Southern Observatory (ESO) / CC 4.0] ]