Name any issue, and you’re likely to find President Barack Obama and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor miles apart. So when they come together on a topic of vital interest to the nation, official Washington should take notice.
In the coming weeks, as Democrats and Republicans begin their annual quest to achieve consensus on federal spending, they should reflect on the president and the majority leader’s calls to scientific arms.
In his Feb. 12 State of the Union address, Obama warned, “Now is not the time to gut … job-creating investments in science and innovation. Now is the time to reach a level of research and development not seen since the height of the space race.”
A week earlier, Cantor told an American Enterprise Institute audience “there is an appropriate role and a necessary role for the federal government to ensure funding for basic medical research.” Pressing the issue more expansively, he said, “Scientific breakthroughs are the result of, and have helped contribute to, America’s being the world’s capital of innovation and opportunity in nearly every field.”
The president and the majority leader have it right. In the face of increasing competition from abroad, the future of our country rests more than ever on our capacity to discover and innovate. More than six decades of economic data point to science and technology as the prime drivers of the modern American economy.
And yet, even as U.S. industry has bailed out of investing in long-term research and development in response to Wall Street’s need for instant gratification, the federal government has failed to fill the gap. Today, federal research-and-development spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product is just 1 percent, compared with 1.9 percent in 1965. For a nation that pins its hopes on high technology, that’s a prescription for a slow trip to the poor house.
You can find plenty of evidence of our downward slide in a recent report by the Task Force on American Innovation, “American Exceptionalism, American Decline?” According to the report, we lag behind the European Union in science and engineering journal articles and are about to be surpassed by Asia as well. Moreover, our share of worldwide scientific citations fell from 46.9 percent in 1998 to 38.3 percent in just one decade. And today, the majority of U.S. patents are of foreign origin.
If we expect the next generation of American researchers to turn the tide, we have a lot of work to do. The report notes that from 1997 to 2007, the percentage growth of U.S. students earning bachelor degrees in science and engineering barely outpaced the percentage growth in the overall U.S. population, while the number of Chinese students receiving comparable degrees quadrupled. Today, the Chinese exceed their American counterparts by almost 5-to-1.
Last month’s sequester will further stress already stressed-out science agencies. The National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, whose budgets were already insufficient to allow many young researchers a decent chance to reach the first rung of a science career ladder, will have to knock out the ladder from under many of those who just made it onto a rung. The Department of Energy will be forced to furlough national laboratory employees, reduce operating time for already oversubscribed research facilities (possibly shuttering one or more of them) and cancel a passel of new projects needed to keep us competitive.
Putting American science on a diet, as the sequester and fiscal 2013 budget agreement do, is the opposite of good policy nutrition. Yet Congress will still have the chance to provide badly needed sustenance when it considers next year’s budget.
Republicans should take their cue from Cantor, who has recognized the value of science and technology for national security, medicine and economic growth. They should ignore the false assertion that the reductions already baked into the budget pie are only 2.3 percent when in reality they are 6 percent or more. Democrats, for their part, should get behind Obama’s prescription for economic growth based on a healthy innovation enterprise. Neither party should hold science captive to fights over spending and taxes. It is too important to fall victim to Washington’s political wrangling.
Michael S. Lubell is a professor of physics at the City College of the City University of New York and director of public affairs of the American Physical Society.