Congress’ ever-expanding to-do list threatens to push federal investments in science to the sidelines. Unless Congress acts soon to lift spending caps and pass a new budget, scientists eager to drive innovation to address challenges like the opioid epidemic, drought, energy conservation and so much more that affect the lives of Americans are essentially in a holding pattern. Members of Congress must recommit to driving scientific progress, a national imperative that is too easily taken for granted.
Federal investments in science have revolutionized many facets of our lives, from the creation of the internet to lifesaving therapies to technologies that transform our energy landscape. Yet our nation’s commitment to science has waned. Federal funding for R&D has reached historic lows relative to GDP, less than one percent in FY16. The U.S. ranks tenth among developed nations in R&D spending as a percentage of GDP, below Israel, South Korea, Japan, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. China’s R&D spending reached 2.1% of GDP last year, moving closer to its goal of 2.5 percent by 2020. China’s investments are supporting projects involving quantum communication and computers, brain science, deep sea stations, artificial intelligence and space-ground integrated technology. Not too long ago, the U.S. wrote the playbook for innovation; recently it seems we have forgotten how to execute at a pace consistent with global leadership.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), the Department of Energy (DOE), the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Department of Defense (DOD) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) require substantial resources to sustain the level of innovation Americans expect from our federal agencies. For example, federal investments help communities and property owners prepare for, respond to, and mitigate against natural and manmade hazards, such as floods, tornadoes, blizzards and hurricanes. Federal investments support research into the development of a universal flu vaccine. Federal investments are necessary to combat bioterrorism, cybersecurity issues and complex diseases and trauma, including those facing our returning veterans. We can’t put off the urgency of finding solutions.
The Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative led by the National Institutes of Health is deepening our understanding of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease. The initiative has yielded cutting-edge technology such as an ultrathin electrode grid that records the activity of single neurons on the surface of the human brain that could potentially be used in clinical settings to pinpoint the areas of the brain that cause severe epilepsy. Neurological illnesses and mental disorders alone cost the U.S. more than $760 billion each year.
USDA-supported scientists have discovered a method to destroy foodborne pathogens like listeria, E. coli, and salmonella while maintaining the freshness of food. Super-tiny, electrified water droplets have proven effective in killing off bacteria on tomatoes and stainless steel surfaces. Scientists plan to test the method on other foods to ensure the safety and effectiveness of the process which could help reduce the prevalence of diseases linked to bacteria, viruses and parasites found in or on food.
Our nation has a rich history of scientific discovery, development and delivery, contributing to better health, security and prosperity. But there’s so much more to learn. Scientific progress is not inevitable; without further investments it will slip from our grasp.