Investing in America's Dazzling Scientific Talent

Our nation needs to increase its commitment to the intellectual pursuit of scientific discovery - and to the "dazzling" talent in our midst. That's a proven strategy to produce the jobs that Americans want and deserve -- not directly but indirectly.
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America's global economic preeminence is built largely on scientific and technological innovation, which is an outgrowth of basic science research. That should cause America's investment in such research to grow significantly, especially with so many Americans still in need of jobs -- and good ones at that. While it's tempting to place that responsibility on the federal government alone, the truth is that it should fall not only on the federal government but on the private sector, philanthropy, and academia as well. All should step up to the plate to a greater degree than ever.

In the federal budget agreement reached over the weekend, funding of the National Science Foundation (NSF) grew 2.4 percent, which is better than most federal agencies, according to Science magazine -- and slightly more than the rate of inflation. In contrast, funding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is flat and still below its budget level in 2012. Neither funding level allows for significant enhancement of our national capacity, despite the fact that researchers funded by the NSF or NIH have won hundreds of Nobel Prizes in recent decades.

That's why it's important not only to continue to advocate increased federal funding of basic science research but to generate new streams of support. One important catalyst is the Science Philanthropy Alliance, which was founded last year by six funders who are working together to increase private investment in fundamental research. The six funders are the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Kavli Foundation, Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and the Simons Foundation.

Inspired by the Alliance, Stony Brook University, where I am President, and the Stony Brook Foundation announced last week a commitment to raise and invest $25 million in additional basic science research at the university. To mark that commitment, the University announced the winner of its first-ever Discovery Prize -- a $200,000 award to a faculty member to fund high-risk, high-reward, basic research.

The winner of this year's Prize is Laurie T. Krug, PhD, Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Stony Brook University, who will use the funds to support research into certain herpes viruses that are associated with cancer and the idea of delivering molecular scissors to the site of virus infection using nanoparticles.

Among the four distinguished judges who chose the winner were two leaders from the Science Philanthropy Alliance: Robert Shelton, PhD, President of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, and James H. Simons, PhD, Chairman of the Simons Foundation. The other two were Nobel Laureate Peter Agre, MD, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Esther Takeuchi, PhD, holder of 150 patents and SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Stony Brook University.

In describing the four finalists after the Prize had been awarded, Nobel Laureate Peter Agre said, "The talent is dazzling!"

That talent is just one sub-set of the expertise at one university out of 64 research universities in the Association of American Universities. There is still more cutting-edge talent at other universities, colleges, scientific institutes, and research laboratories throughout the nation. Together these institutions form an ecosystem of scientific and technological expertise that deserves to be recognized and supported for its vital role in the economic strength of our nation.

One of the realities of basic science research is that it increases our knowledge, which leads to discovery and innovation. It does not create directly the practical applications of that knowledge, but it makes those applications possible. Breakthroughs in quantum physics, for instance, made possible the creation of semiconductors -- and the birth of an entire industry.

Our nation needs to increase its commitment to the intellectual pursuit of scientific discovery - and to the "dazzling" talent in our midst. That's a proven strategy to produce the jobs that Americans want and deserve -- not directly but indirectly. If we impressively fund that pursuit and invest in that talent, we will continue to lead the world in scientific and technological innovation. If we don't, other nations will, and the jobs that should be ours will go elsewhere.


The author, a physician and medical researcher, is President of Stony Brook University.

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