The Dividends of Funding Basic Science

Monday, December 5, 2016
The Wall Street Journal


President-elect Trump is calling for major reinvestment in public infrastructure—and any American can understand why. We all know from direct experience that much U.S. infrastructure is in rough condition, and most agree that renewing and advancing our infrastructure, from bridges and airports to the electrical grid, would support economic improvement and supply new jobs.

But for the nation’s long-term security, prosperity, competitiveness and health, and for generations of lasting new jobs, we must also rebuild another kind of infrastructure now eroding—by renewing our national commitment to fundamental science.

For 70 years, federal support for basic scientific research has been the invisible infrastructure paving the way to innovation and economic growth. Every American can be proud of the U.S. system for producing new scientific knowledge. And every American has benefited from the resulting innovations: The development of ultraprecise atomic clocks opened the door to GPS. Work on nuclear magnetic resonance led to the MRI scanner. Number theory enabled encryption, which enables e-commerce—and so on.

The U.S. remains a powerhouse of research and development. As the National Science Foundation reported in September, total national R&D funding from all sources reached nearly $500 billion in 2015, more than any nation has ever spent on it in one year. The share supplied by industry also reached a record-high 69%. This is excellent news.

With industry already investing so much, the question sometimes arises: Why can’t our entire national research investment be privatized? Because the qualities that make industry good at applied research and development—an appetite for immediate commercialization, a laser focus on consumer demand, an obligation to maximize short-term returns, and a proprietary attitude about information—make industry a bad fit for supporting basic scientific research.

In the days before the burdens of quarterly public earnings reports and intense global competition, Bell Labs and its peers had the freedom to invest in very long-term research. But today, industry R&D disproportionately prefers the “D” in R&D, as a good source of incremental gains. Industry hardly touches the earliest form of “R”—fundamental science—although that is where the gains can be transformational.

The long view is under threat in government; in industry, it’s over. And although some philanthropists now back basic science, the scale of the investment required over time dwarfs any individual efforts; the National Institutes of Health alone, for example, spend $30 billion on basic science every year.

What’s more, federal investment in basic research—the foundational stage of research, on which all the rest depends—is in decline. At its height in the 1970s, government funding for basic research represented more than 2% of U.S. gross domestic product. Known as “R&D intensity,” this ratio measures society’s commitment to science, and by 2014 it had dropped to just 0.78% of GDP.

The decline is especially pronounced in the physical sciences, like chemistry and physics—the sources for deep insights that stimulate breakthroughs in every scientific domain. This erosion of support should concern us all, because science is our most rigorous, reliable path to understanding the material world.

Scientists are like entrepreneurs: They have an eye for spotting unrealized opportunities. It can be hard to predict where those leads will take them. But as we have seen over decades, basic science leads to the new knowledge that leads all of us to the future, along the way spinning off powerful new tools and educating a new generation of scientific pioneers.

From smartphones to supercomputers to LED lighting, today’s innovations emerged from discoveries that were “new” decades ago. If we hope for technological solutions in the future to some of humanity’s great challenges—Alzheimer’s, cancer, infectious disease, cybersecurity, safe nuclear power, climate change, water and food for the world—we must renew our national commitment to supporting basic science. That reinvestment is also vital if we want more emerging opportunities in fields like advanced materials and manufacturing, renewable energy, photonics, quantum computing, synthetic biology and space exploration to benefit our society with jobs and quality of life.

Underfunding is only one danger; another comes from the outside. In the scope and success of its scientific enterprise, the U.S. has long been the unquestioned global leader. Because the U.S. government has been the world’s largest supporter of potentially transformative science since World War II, the U.S. still boasts the highest share of knowledge- and technology-intensive industries in the world—with a first-rate, globally sourced scientific workforce to match. But other nations are closing in fast. Today, a number of Asian and European nations are all investing aggressively in basic science—and China is set to overshadow total U.S. government R&D spending within a decade. We should not be surprised if, within a generation, the talent and the discoveries go to the countries with the wisdom to invest in them.

Any of us who travel to the great Asian transit centers—Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Beijing—know the sinking sensation upon realizing that the airport we just came from in the U.S. is way out of date. For the sake of the nation’s future, we must not allow the invisible infrastructure of our scientific enterprise to suffer the same fate.