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Can America Renew Its Commitment To Science?

2015 June 17
by Greg Satell

From the moon landing to the decoding of the human genome, science is what made America a technological superpower.  Whether it’s advanced microchips, the Internet, or miracle cures, the world looks to the U.S. for a large proportion of breakthroughs and public funding has been at the center of it all.

Yet lately there seems to be a veritable war on science, with politicians eagerly pandering by questioning the age of the earth, crusading to cut scientific budgets and calling evolution and the Big Bang lies from the pit of hell.  The OECD reports that China is now poised to overtake the US in scientific funding.

Yet the tide may be beginning to turn. The 21st Century Cures Act, a new bill that would restore funding to the NIH and streamline drug approvals, just passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee by a unanimous vote of 51-0.  It’s about time.  After over a decade of neglect, we desperately need to renew our commitment to science and competitiveness.

The Need For Public Funding Of Science

In many ways, funding science is not an easy sell.  Unlike something like farm subsidies, there is no built-in constituency or immediate benefits.  Instead, billions of dollars go towards articles in obscure journals that few people read.  Eventually—sometimes decades later—those insights are transformed into products by companies in the private sector.

Many on the right allege that research budgets are wasteful and could be better used in the private sector, while those on the left argue that scientific funding is an elaborate form of corporate welfare.  The underlying premise of both arguments is that public funding can be replaced by private funding.

Yet that is a vast misconception.  Businesses will only invest in projects when they can have a reasonable expectation of appropriating returns.  In the case of basic research, that’s rarely true, because the goal of basic research is not to create a product, but to expand knowledge. Only later can the fruits of that knowledge be exploited for practical use.

That’s why when Vannevar Bush proposed our current architecture for funding science after World War II, he did so with basic research in mind.  He wrote that “there must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise,” and it was that idea, perhaps more than anything else, which led to America’s technological dominance.

The Decline Of Science In America

Dr. Bush’s proposal led to the the creation of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the returns have been astronomical.  The Internet, laser scanners and 7 out of the 21 top drugs introduced between 1965 and 1992, just to name a few examples, originated from federal funding.

Unfortunately, that funding has fallen off for a variety of reasons.  In some cases, like President Bush’s restriction of stem cell research, motivations are ideological.  In others, such as sequestration, science funding is cut out of budget concerns.  And sometimes, especially when issues regarding climate change or evolution come up, the motivation is political.

The result is that scientific funding, except for a short bump during the stimulus program, has steadily fallen over the last decade, and that’s already begun to have an impact.  In the most glaring case, funding for an Ebola vaccine was cut just before a major outbreak. Yet most of the damage doesn’t make the news, we simply become less competitive over time.

A Political Solution To A Political Problem

For most of his career, Ron DePinho devoted his life to exactly the kind of obscure research that the NIH funds.  More specifically, he studied the role of telomeres in cancer and aging  in mice, not the type of work that makes headlines and excites voters.  Yet DePinho’s work, particularly in cancer, led to some of most exciting diagnostics and therapies we have today.

In 2011, DePinho was named President at the prestigious MD Anderson Cancer Center and he found himself increasingly distressed about the state of science funding across the nation. Without the type of basic research he did earlier in his career, MD Anderson wouldn’t realize its full potential to transform new discoveries into life saving therapies.  He could already see the impact of the budget shortfall.

Yet DePinho is a physician and scientist, not a politician, and could do little more than advocate for more funding.  However, as he discussed the funding crisis with Jed Manocherian, a member of his board, he too became distressed and decided to do something about it.  The result was Act for NIH, a nonprofit organization which attracted a broad level of support from throughout the medical community.

Headed by Patrick White, a former Associate Director for Legislative Policy and Analysis at NIH, the committee focused on driving legislative action.  They hired a top lobbying firm, met with a wide array of politicians, interest groups and industry figures and made a strong case for restoring funding.  The NIH funding provisions in the 21st Century Cures Act show that their advocacy has been effective.

To Win The Future, We Have To Invest In It

Restoring funding to the NIH is hugely important.  As Newt Gingrich pointed out in an OpEd, treatment of chronic diseases will cost us trillions in the decades to come, much of it directly from the federal budget in the form of Medicare and Medicaid costs.  Comparatively, funding the  NIH is a drop in the bucket.  It will not only reduce human suffering, but indeed save us money over time.

Still, even if the 21st Century Cures act is eventually passed, there is still much work to do. While we are moving forward on medical research, Congress is in the process of enacted massive cuts to the NSF and NASA budgets.  Even more alarmingly, these cuts are largely being made for ideological, rather than budgetary or scientific reasons.

That’s a real problem.  The scientific architecture that Vannevar Bush set up after World War II was no accident, but was, in fact, an expansion of the scientific programs that saved western civilization from the Nazis. Later, it became the engine that that drove our peacetime prosperity.  To abandon that model, which has become the envy of the word, is insanity.

To win the future, we have to invest in it and that requires a partnership among industry, academia and government.  What made the ACT for NIH effort so successful was that it was, as Patrick White told me, “inclusive, engaging and collaborative.”

In other words, if we are to continue our legacy of technological excellence, it will take more than just an act of Congress.  We need to renew our national spirit.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. June 20, 2015

    I’m actually commenting on your article in Forbes today (June 20, 2015) “How the Impossible becomes Possible”.

    It is a funny coincidence that just as I am about to publicly criticize one of Forbes other contributors, Paul Tassi about his article “You will never kill piracy, and piracy will never kill you”, I should notice your article.

    It is also a funny coincidence that I too am making references to Larry Page and his “happiness is a healthy disregard for the impossible”(2012 Update from the CEO).

    You may be interested to also read Larry Page’s 2013 Founder’s Letter near the bottom under the caption “Invention and Reinvention”.

    My beef with Mr. Paul Tassi is that he along with too many others mislead people into believing that they are experts in fields which they aren’t – like what is “impossible”. Just because they don’t know how to do something, doesn’t mean that it is “impossible”. And what qualifications do these people have to make such statements?

    I could go on, but I really just wanted to let you know that I did like your article, and that I may be making a reference to it on my web-site, in one of my “Rants”. The just of one of my “rants” is that too many people believe that stopping movie piracy is impossible, when in reality they just don’t know how to do it.

    For your info – the part about big problems needing a multi-disciplined approach to solve, supports why I have a solution to movie piracy. I have a background in electronics, security, finance, banking, auditing, business consulting, and the movie industry (having been an owner/operator of a movie theater).

    My web-site is not fully completed yet, but should be done shortly.

    So thanks for your article – it is both inspiring and supportive.

  2. June 21, 2015

    Thanks Glenn. Alway happy to be included in a rant:-)

    – Greg

  3. June 22, 2015

    Thanks. Going to hold you to that comment.

    Just so you know. The movie industry needs help, and you are the kind of person they could use.

    I’ll keep you posted if something comes up.


  4. June 25, 2015

    Don’t forget that we have what Michio Kaku called our ‘Secret Weapon’: the H1B-Visa. So long as we renew our commitment to this program (by renewing the visas of brilliant immigrant scientists and engineers), and keep pushing our high schoolers to go into science, we are well-poised to maintain our leadership in science. Still, we should not become complacent: the rest of the world is pulling ahead. While China only recently got started in serious scientific research around 2000, it is expected to win at least several science Nobels by the end of the 2020s, according to Thomson Reuters. That agency has a pretty good track record of predicting Nobels, having correctly picked 35 winners since it started these predictions back in 2002. The other BRICS countries are not far behind, especially because they now have the funds to power scientific research.

  5. June 25, 2015

    Good point. Thanks for mentioning it.

    – Greg

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