Federal Investment in Research Still Essential

Despite these enormous returns on investment -- and the promise of future advancements and breakthroughs -- we can no longer depend on public funding for support of basic, highly innovative research.
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In her well-reviewed 2013 book, The Entrepreneurial State, distinguished economist Mariana Muzzacato lays out an insightful and outstanding argument for increased governmental support for scientific and technological innovation. She explains that through its support of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), and other agencies and departments, the U.S. government created an environment ripe for innovation to occur. And through its entrepreneurial, risk-taking investments, federal investment has propelled forward the global IT, green, bio-tech and other revolutions and spurred worldwide economic growth.

In fact, our federal government's investment in basic research has formed the backbone of some of the most advanced technology and life transforming discoveries that benefit us every day. GPS was developed from Department of Defense supported basic research designed to test the theory of general relativity; the MRI from NIH-funded studies at Stony Brook University on nuclear resonance and magnetic fields; and, the internet from basic research in computer science on packet switching theory supported by DARPA.

Despite these enormous returns on investment -- and the promise of future advancements and breakthroughs -- we can no longer depend on public funding for support of basic, highly innovative research. In the 1960s, the federal government invested 1.7 percent of the country's GDP in basic research versus .07 percent today. In real numbers that means that since its peak of $40 billion in 2009, federal support for basic research fell to $30 billion last year, a drastic decline. Overall, from its high of $165.5 billion in 2009, total federal financing for research and development has sunk to $133.7 billion this fiscal year, a level not seen since the early 2000s. With President Obama's research and development budget for fiscal year 2015 the lowest of his presidency, and Congress's commitment to austerity budgets, it is hard to be optimistic about the future. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that in a recent survey from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, 85 percent of respondents said that reduced federal investment has allowed our global competitors to catch up to, and even pass, the U.S. in scientific research.

Into this ominous picture has come some light. Indeed, much has been made of and reported recently about the enormous sums being invested by philanthropists into science, medical and technological research. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has contributed $500 million to establish a brain science institute in Seattle. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, and his wife Wendy have allocated some $100 million of their fortune to fund the Schmidt Ocean Institute for the marine sciences. Philanthropist and entrepreneur Eli Broad donated $700 million for a joint venture between Harvard and the MIT to explore the genetic basis of disease. These and many other entrepreneurial donors are taking the risks on basic research that were the hallmark of government for decades.

As a university president, medical doctor and basic science researcher, I read these stories with great interest and concern.

While research institutions across America -- both public and private -- are thankful for the incredible support of philanthropists like Jim and Marilyn Simons (whose historic generosity has profoundly impacted Stony Brook University, the institution I head), who are stepping in to fill the chasms resulting from shrinking federal research funding, there should not be such gaps.

Yes, society does benefit when the wealthy are willing to donate to researching deadly diseases. But we cannot rely on these generous individuals to support the extraordinary range of science that has led to the life saving discoveries and technological innovations that have changed our world. Without restoration and increases in Federal support for basic research, we will lose our competitive edge in innovation, the edge that has helped us lead the global economy. Perhaps most frighteningly, we risk losing the next generation of scientists, who seeing a bleak future for research funding in the United States will turn elsewhere, taking their talent to other nations, or simply abandoning their scientific careers.

The fact that many enlightened philanthropists are lending their support to basic and applied research is wonderful, but it should not and cannot replace government support for basic research. Our country's investment in basic scientific research has changed the world, and helped make us the global leader for innovation. We must preserve this remarkable legacy.

The writer is President of Stony Brook University, a flagship of the State University of New York system, the largest public university system in the United States. Stony Brook University recently established the Discovery Fund using a private donation to jump start a philanthropic endeavor to raise funds to support basic science research.

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