Skip to content

Let’s Bolster Science and Innovation by Rolling Back the Sequester | Commentary

Here is a tale of two diseases. According to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the past two years alone have seen a rollout of 19 new cancer drugs. Long-term investments in understanding the fundamental molecular biology of cancer, beginning with President Richard M. Nixon’s launching of his “War on Cancer” in 1971, have generated huge returns for Americans, with powerful new immunotherapies now in the development pipeline. But here is another, less positive tale: Over the past decade, no new drugs have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help the 5 million Americans who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a number expected to grow dramatically in the coming years, at a huge cost to the U.S. economy as well as to American families.

Although it faces stiff opposition on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama’s fiscal 2016 budget proposal would provide a much-needed 8.7 percent boost in federal funding for Alzheimer’s disease research directed by the National Institutes of Health, in part by rolling back spending caps set forth in the Budget Control Act of 2011. Funding increases to advance U.S. science and innovation are urgently needed: federal research and development as a share of the nation’s economy last year dropped to its lowest point in about 50 years. Meanwhile, Medicare spending related to the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease now stands at $150 billion, and it continues to climb. Removing the non-strategic, across-the-board caps known as “sequestration” to achieve a small (3.3 percent) proposed 2016 increase for the NIH overall, along with similarly modest increases for other science agencies, is a strategic imperative.

America is in danger of losing its innovative edge. As MIT explained in its report, “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit,” some of the most noteworthy scientific advances of 2014 — from the debut of the world’s fastest supercomputer, to the first landing on a comet — were not U.S.-directed achievements. In 2011, China’s government announced a plan to invest twice as much as the United States in life sciences R&D, in current dollars, and four times as much as a share of gross domestic product, over a five-year period. Under current law, the U.S. federal “discretionary” budget, which encompasses support for science, distinct from mandatory entitlement programs, remains at levels set four years ago by the Budget Control Act. The president’s fiscal 2016 proposal would dial back spending reductions to provide a 7.2 percent increase over 2015 levels, and a $329 billion increase cumulatively through fiscal 2021, when the so-called sequestration caps expire.

Of course, adequate federal funding is not the only ingredient of a productive scientific research effort, but it is a necessary ingredient. Increased U.S. support for R&D would set the stage for economy-boosting innovations, especially in the areas of advanced manufacturing, clean-energy technology, climate-change research and neuroscience. Game-changing scientific advances often begin with basic research. Global positioning systems got their start when physicists in the 1940s were curious about Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity — and in particular, how wavelengths of light shift in a gravitational field — leading to atomic clocks. Google has changed the world’s economy because Larry Page and Sergey Brin wanted to see if they could develop an algorithm to rank Web pages.

What future innovations might be possible, given strong, sustained support for U.S. R&D? Across the country, new gene-editing methods suggest a way to repair damaged DNA. Synthetic biology research may yield new biofuels as well as replacement tissues. Researchers at George Washington University are leveraging National Science Foundation funding to help reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by rethinking the cement-production process. Fuel-efficiency technologies are the focus of a research project supported by the Department of Energy and industry partners. Yet another DOE-funded team is studying the effects of earthquakes on the fuel rods in nuclear power plants. Chemists are using an award from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to better understand biological and chemical agents. NIH-funded engineers will use nanoscale 3-D printing to regenerate damaged tissues.

Such efforts require long-term investments that may be too risky for the private sector; industry supports only about 6 percent of all U.S. R&D at universities. Nixon recognized the importance of federal funding for academic research in the 1970s, and today his “War on Cancer” is paying off. By comparison, researchers are still trying to unravel the basic biological mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease, which is likely to generate $1.2 trillion in total public and private costs by 2050. Policymakers face increasingly difficult funding decisions. In considering 2016 budget options, we would urge them to roll back sequestration, to provide adequate support for future medical advances and U.S. innovation.

Steven Knapp is president of George Washington University. Former Rep. Rush D. Holt is chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.