Opinion: Research and Debt Reduction

Investing more federal dollars in life science research may save the US economy.

Mary Woolley
Oct 1, 2011

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I predict that the future of science funding is rosy—except in the United States. If there were agencies akin to Standard & Poor’s charged with rating life-sciences futures in the US, we would be looking at a downgrade. We would owe such a downgrade largely to the complacency of federal policymakers, too many of whom appear willing to watch the US research enterprise wither on the vine. The increasingly common decampment of US researchers to China, India, Singapore, and elsewhere reflects this reality. One researcher recently told me that his move to India was prompted by that government’s view of research as an investment rather than a cost. US policymakers used to consider funding research a sound investment, and as a result we spent decades setting the global standard for science. Other nations have learned from us how taxpayer-funded R&D fuels economic growth and the results are...

Because investing taxpayer dollars is a political decision, scientists, who reside in every state and congressional district, could alter the current course of science funding. How? Scientists must personally demonstrate accountability to the taxpayer by explaining and promoting their research, educating taxpayers and policymakers about the return they can expect for our investment in science. That return is multifaceted. It fuels jobs, sows the seeds of new businesses, and literally saves lives. Scientists must fight for federal research funding now—not tomorrow, or next year or five years from now. The 2011 federal fiscal year ended September 30. Federal spending for fiscal year 2012 is being determined now. The 2012 budget will establish a critical “baseline” for future research funding since flat budgets are written into the law for the following ten years. The clock is ticking down on our ability to secure robust research funding. Advocacy by all stakeholders in research will be vitally important to securing the strongest possible funding in the 2012 budget.

Too many federal policymakers appear willing to watch the US research enterprise wither on the vine.

Scientists have another job to do too. They must speak out and urge members of the so-called Congressional “supercommittee,” created as part of the Budget Control Act that Congress agreed upon in August, to do its job and find an additional $1.2 trillion in savings over the next decade. If the supercommittee doesn’t make the hard decisions and agree on deficit-reducing reforms to our entitlement and tax systems, our nation will be facing automatic, across-the-board cuts to research and other discretionary spending. Such cuts would set scientific innovation in this country back by decades just as other nations throughout the world are gaining speed. Such a path would be disastrous for America.

Not too long ago, US dominance in the auto industry was considered our birthright. We indulged a similar attitude toward consumer electronics for far too long, and then watched world leadership in that arena also move overseas. We must not stand by and allow our global leadership in the life sciences to slip away as well.

Imagine if everyone in the research community spoke out by visiting or calling their representative and senators, making the case that research must once again become a robust national priority. If large and small employers alike, joined by health-care professionals and insurers, aligned forces with the scientific community to make a strong case for research to policymakers, all of these people taken together could not be ignored. Research-fueled innovation is the key to business growth, job creation and—as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and other expensive health conditions explode the costs of Medicare and Medicaid—federal cost containment. Investing in research is a deficit reduction strategy.

A robust future for research in the United States is not guaranteed. Now, more than ever, we must work to ensure that our nation continues to lead the global innovation economy rather than lag behind it. I frankly don’t see that leadership continuing into our future unless all the stakeholders in research decide to stand and fight for that future, and do something that feels uncomfortable: take a political position. Stepping forward to fight for a healthier nation and a healthier economy, driven once again by science and innovation, may not be a familiar path for scientists, but it is the right one. It is patriotic. Others will follow if scientists step up—let’s start now.

Mary Woolley is the president and CEO of Research!America. She is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.