The future of the American scientific enterprise is looking bleak with the current budget levels and future budget projections. As the value of funding that congress appropriates for research and development (R&D) shrinks, scientists are starting to wonder whether they will have a job in the future and even wonder whether their profession is worth pursuing (1). In this blog post, I hope to provide a short overview of the financial situation surrounding R&D research, and present several outcomes resulting from the country’s current austerity measures.
In the United States, grants awarded by executive branch agencies fund a large chunk of scientific research. These agencies include the National Institute of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and many others. Over the last 10 years, the budgets of these agencies have begun to flat-line and shrink. The 2008 financial meltdown is one of the reasons for this trend, and it was further worsened by the recent sequester cuts that involved across-the-board cuts to federal agencies.
The following chart from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) report “Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity,” shows federal spending on R&D since 2002. Appropriated dollars shown in red appear to rise and then remain constant—with a noticeable drop in 2013 from sequester cuts. Most alarming in this image is the flat-lined and diminishing purchasing power of the federal spending shown in grey when the budget is adjusted for inflation. Clearly, the United States government has not been fostering a growing research enterprise.
This diminishing investment is starting to dramatically impact the science community. ASBMB conducted a survey throughout the United States among research scientists to determine the effects of these budgetary shortfalls (2). The responses are listed in the graph below with many unfortunate findings. A large percentage of professors are struggling to receive grants, and as a result many researchers are being laid off. Therefore, current economic struggles will adversely affect the next generation of scientists.
Also, according to the ASBMB survey, 18% of researchers are considering the prospect of moving their research career overseas. This might not be surprising if you examine the next figure, which shows the change in research investments from several top-research countries as measured by the percentage of GDP (2). In regards to scientific innovation, the United States appears to be in bad shape and may lose its dominance in the world.
Research in this country is far too important to not prioritize. Aside from the potential for creating life-saving cures (3), research also provides a valuable economic return on investment. For every $1 the US government invests in research, it will receive $2 in the future (4). The reason for this investment potential is because basic research leads to innovation and development that can be used and sold by private industries (5). Smart phones are a great example of industrial success from basic research. Companies that create smart phones essentially create ways to package existing technology that was discovered in basic research labs (6).
I strongly believe we need to consistently increase R&D budgets in this country so we can encourage the next generation of scientists, maintain the country’s competitive edge in R&D, and create innovation for the health and economic welfare of all citizens. For these reasons, I believe we need to make our voices heard by our political representatives. Whether you are a scientist or not, congress needs to hear the importance of funding R&D so that the United States can foster a growing research enterprise.
Lastly, I want to emphasize that this is not a partisan issue. While some people believe Republicans are hindering the political effort to increase science funding, it was the Republican senate in the 1990’s that led the initiative to double the NIH budget throughout the 90’s into 2003 (7). Therefore, let’s not make this a Democratic or Republican issue, and let’s confront this problem together.