In April, MIT released The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit, - a report on both the long term benefits of basic research and the impact on those benefits of declining federal investments.
“2014 was a year of notable scientific highlights,” notes the report in its introduction, “including: the first landing on a comet, which has already shed important light on the formation of the Earth; the discovery of a new fundamental particle, which provides critical information on the origin of the universe; development of the world’s fastest supercomputer; a surge in research on plant biology that is uncovering new and better ways to meet global food requirements.”
“None of these, however, were U.S.-led achievements,” it then adds. “The first two reflected 10-year, European-led efforts; the second two are Chinese accomplishments, reflecting that nation’s emergence as a science and technology power. Hence the widespread concern over a growing U.S. innovation deficit, attributable in part to declining public investment in research.”
According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the percentage of the federal annual budget devoted to R&D has fallen from 9.1%, ($16.2 billion), in 1968 to 3.4%, ($131.0 billion), in 2015. As it has for many decades, the US continues to lead the world in total R&D outlays, which includes all the R&D carried out in companies, universities, research institutes, government labs and so on. But other countries, China in particular, are catching up.
In 2014, says R&D magazine, the US spent $465 billion in R&D, while China was second at $284 billion. But, it estimates that given the current rate of growth and investments, China will be spending $600 billion in R&D and surpass the US around 2022 due to its faster growing economy.
While basic research may not have immediate payoffs, many innovations now critical to economic competitiveness are a direct result of past federally-funded research initiatives. These include the fracking revolution that is turning the US into the world’s largest oil producer, which stems from research programs begun in the wake of the 1973 OPEC oil embargo. The War on Cancer is another major 1970s federally-funded effort that over time has led to a number of successful anti-cancer therapies. And, as is well known, many of the advances in digital and communication technologies of the past 50 years, including integrated circuits and the Internet, can be directly traced to government funded research programs.
Declining government investments in basic research have led to so called innovation deficits in a number of key industries with potentially big commercial payoffs, including health, energy and high-tech. They’re also having an impact on supercomputing, cybersecurity, defense technologies and other critical national capabilities where the US risks falling behind, as well as on prestigious science programs like space exploration, fusion energy and synthetic biology. And, this is happening at a time when federal support is more important than ever because basic research has now been significantly reduced or disappeared altogether in most US companies.
Corporate research labs were first established in the years after World War II and modeled after research universities. Their job was to push the frontiers of knowledge by conducting basic research which would hopefully lead to exciting new technologies and ideas. Over time, the innovations moved from the research labs to product development, and from there to the marketplace. Since both technology and markets advanced at a relatively slow pace, time-to-market was not a major issue.
But, technology and market environments have drastically changed in the intervening years. First, the rate and pace of technology advances has significantly accelerated. The hand-offs and lab-to-market times inherent in the old model are no longer viable. Start-ups have done away with the hand-offs altogether, significantly decreasing the time-to-market for new products and services, and putting huge pressures on older, more established companies. These competitive pressures, further exacerbated by the forces of globalization, have made it harder for companies to justify investing in research unrelated to products or customer projects.
Corporate research labs continue to play a major role, given the leading edge innovations they often come up with and the top talent they attract. Advances in technology, science and engineering are badly needed to help address the increasingly complex problems we’re now trying to solve. But to stay relevant, those research labs have had to get more directly involved in the development of the highly sophisticated product and market-facing services that their breakthroughs hopefully lead to. Consequently, there’s now little private sector money and talent left over for basic research. More than ever, government has the central role for funding longer term research.
“This central role of federal research support means that sudden changes in funding levels such as the recent sequester can disrupt research efforts and cause long term damage, especially to the pipeline of scientific talent on which U.S. research leadership ultimately depends,” writes the MIT report. “In a survey of the effects of reduced research funding conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education last year among 11,000 recipients of NIH and NSF research grants, nearly half have abandoned an area of investigation they considered critical to their lab’s mission, and more than three quarters have fired or failed to hire graduate students and research fellows. Other evidence suggests that many of those affected switch careers, leaving basic research behind forever.”
The report highlights 15 research opportunities that could have a transformative impact on the economy and society in the not too distant future. Each such opportunity is explained in a short writeup by an MIT faculty expert.
- Alzheimer’s Disease - “We Are Seeing Breakthroughs in Treating Cancer - Why Not Alzheimer’s?”
- Cybersecurity - “Hack attacks are not just a nuisance; they cause costly harm and could threaten critical systems. Can they be stopped?”
- Space Exploration - “Is there life on other earth-like planets? What exactly are ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ and how have they shaped the universe? Only research in space can answer such questions.”
- Plant Sciences - “Growing more food, and more nutritious food, for a hungry world is again an urgent challenge. Productivity needs to increase by at least 50 percent.”
- Quantum Information Technologies - “The technological challenge is immense. But the unique properties of quantum systems offer tantalizing power.”
- Enabling Better Policy Decisions - “Insights from social and economic research can empower policymakers and aid their decisions, saving governments money and improving opportunities for economic growth.”
- Catalysis - “Today’s industrial catalysts are relatively crude and imprecise. Nature’s catalysts are far better, but how they work is not well understood. Solving that puzzle would have profound impact on energy and environmental challenges.”
- Fusion Energy - “Is there a faster, cheaper route to fusion energy?”
- Infectious Disease - “The ability to understand and manipulate the basic molecular constituents of living things has created an extraordinary opportunity to improve human health.”
- Defense Technology - “We face sophisticated competitors and new terrorist threats. Yet there are opportunities to maintain U.S. leadership and, especially, to better protect our war fighters in the field.”
- Photonics - “The development of photonic integrated circuits will transform supercomputing and the semiconductor industry in ways that are important strategically and commercially.”
- Synthetic Biology - “Redesigning life itself in the lab, and in the process potentially transforming bio-manufacturing, food production, and healthcare.”
- Materials Discovery and Processing - “If the U.S. is to be a competitive player in the next generation of advanced materials, it will need to invest significantly more in materials research, in crystal growth and similar facilities, and in training the next generation of material scientists.”
- Robotics - “Robots and other intelligent, man-made machines such as drones or driver-less cars have moved beyond the factory floor and are finding use in healthcare and other service industries and even in the home.”
- Batteries - “Will Asian countries dominate the next generation of batteries, as they do the current one?”
“Although the benefit of any particular scientific endeavor is unpredictable, there is no doubt that investing in basic research has always paid off over time,” said professor Marc Kostner, chair of the MIT faculty committee that developed the report. “Economists tell us that past investments in research and development account for a large fraction of our current GDP, and even if the future payoffs are not as large, there is no doubt that we will suffer if we do not keep up with those nations that are now making bigger investments than we are.”