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Opinion: Where Science Goes, So Goes Our Nation

Investing in research and innovation pays off big

A scientist tracking tornadoes in Oklahoma in May looks at radar on his smartphone as part of a project that gets funding from the National Science Foundation and other government programs. Rep. Paul Tonko  writes that federal funding has had a direct impact on technology such as Doppler radar, GPS and smartphones. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)
A scientist tracking tornadoes in Oklahoma in May looks at radar on his smartphone as part of a project that gets funding from the National Science Foundation and other government programs. Rep. Paul Tonko  writes that federal funding has had a direct impact on technology such as Doppler radar, GPS and smartphones. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images file photo)

A recent opinion column “Science That Leads” by my colleague, House Science Chairman Lamar Smith, argued that certain kinds of science, especially social and behavioral sciences, are not worth public investment. As an engineer, I take special care when I say: The facts disagree.

In 2014, the world’s foremost doctors and medical experts were working furiously to manage the rapidly growing threat of Ebola. Anthropologists, representing a field of behavioral science, understood the funeral practices in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone and were able to act as mediators to intervene in ways that slowed the spread of the illness and saved countless lives. The full economic and public health value of this contribution is impossible to quantify but the lives and resources they saved are very real.

Cuts to social and behavioral science will ripple out across many science, technology, engineering and mathematics research fields, hurting those fields as well.

Behavioral sciences have had widespread positive impact on our nation and the world. In fact, every winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics since 1997 has been a recipient of a Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences grant at the National Science Foundation, the very division that Chairman Smith has proposed we slash.

The fact is, our current system for reviewing and awarding science grants is rigorous and the envy of the world precisely because it is driven by the science itself, not politics or opinions or short-term personal preferences.

Most scientists do not take up their given research because it has a flashy name or they think it will test well in focus groups. Science is not marketing. It is about pushing the boundaries of discovery, grinding a hypothesis into repeatable results and sometimes changing the world in the process.

We must continue our investment in behavioral sciences. And we should continue a long bipartisan tradition of funding and conducting research across the federal government. That research, by very definition, will have many failures. But failure is the down payment on success.

We have seen over many years that investments in basic research often yield unexpected benefits over time. That long gestation does not make a discovery any less important, nor its eventual impact any less extraordinary. There is simply no way to know in advance what research will give birth to transformative innovation. As we did during the Space Race, we must adopt a longer vision and follow the science wherever it leads.

A bite at the apple

It helps that such a longer vision has served us exceptionally well in the past. Consider, for example, the U.S. government’s long record of smart early investments in science and innovation:

The American people were early investors in Apple in 1978, back when it still had just a few dozen employees, through the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Investment Company  program.

The federal government played a direct role in creating the modern smartphone, providing seed funding through the Small Business Innovation Research  program to produce the GPS, touchscreen and countless other components that power the smartphone you’re statistically likely to be holding as you read this article. In fact, some two-thirds of the contents of that phone are there thanks to SBIR applied research funding.

SBIR visionary investments continue today with pioneering work in 3D printing and other additive manufacturing, health research to prevent Zika and other dangerous diseases, and countless advances in clean energy technology.

National Science Foundation research has directly contributed to the creation of the internet, fiber optics, web browsers, Doppler radar, MRIs, bar codes, speech recognition software, tissue engineering, tumor recognition, and the extraordinarily promising field of nanotechnology.

Such early-stage investments don’t undermine the free market, they strengthen it by planting the seeds that grow into entire industries, creating jobs and lifting our economy for generations.

Cuts that hurt

Sadly, the past year has shown us a different vision of how science is treated by our leaders and our government.

As other countries come together to fight climate change and plan for the future under the voluntary Paris climate agreement, our strategic plan been reduced to sticking our heads in the sand.

As other countries pioneer innovative renewable energy and hyperefficient technologies, President Donald Trump and Republican leaders are working to eliminate cutting-edge programs including the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy  and the Department of Energy’s groundbreaking Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy.

These are vast departures from American global leadership that will hurt our standing and our competitive strength as a nation. They also leave us without critical tools that have transformed the lives of countless millions of Americans and the entire global economy for decades.

Yes, it might seem fun or funny to ridicule silly-sounding scientific research projects. It might feel like an easy way to confirm one’s prejudice against government spending of any kind. But when we make light of this work, we risk trivializing and even defunding research that would have gone on to power our economy and change countless lives for the better.

Staying globally competitive starts with funding for discovery. That means not letting the visionary work of our nation’s scientists become just another ideological scrap that we fight over in the junkyard of our modern political landscape. We must set aside the impulse to be armchair critics with easy uninformed arguments about which science is worthy and which is not. We must look to the research and the facts, and let science be our guide.

Rep. Paul Tonko is an engineer by training and a Democrat. He has represented New York’s 20th District since 2009 and serves on the House Science Committee and as ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Environment Subcommittee.

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