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Opinion: America Needs to Recommit to Investing in Science

The recent omnibus spending package is a good first step

A research technician at the New York Genome Center in 2013. Reviving federal investment in scientific research is crucial given the high costs associated with new technologies, Stockwell writes. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)
A research technician at the New York Genome Center in 2013. Reviving federal investment in scientific research is crucial given the high costs associated with new technologies, Stockwell writes. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images file photo)

When it comes to science, the United States is getting its lunch handed to it by countries such as China, which not only invests more dollars into scientific research and development but also produces more undergraduate science and engineering majors than we do stateside.

The National Science Foundation’s Science & Engineering Indicators recently warned that U.S. dominance in scientific advancement is under serious threat. This warning was reaffirmed by the 2018 Bloomberg Innovation Index, in which the U.S. did not even rank among the top ten most innovative countries in the world anymore.

It wasn’t always this way. Over generations, American innovation has resulted in countless technological advances in energy, medicine, agriculture and defense. And it has continued to serve as the heart of the U.S. economy.

The recent omnibus spending package underscored the bipartisan support for American innovation. Congress increased investments for federal programs that perform game-changing research, such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy, or ARPA-E, and raised funding levels for agencies that direct research at national labs and universities.

But we must do more to boost U.S. dominance in innovation around the world, and rouse ingenuity at home. Our economy and national security depend on it.

The Bipartisan Policy Center has recently commenced an effort to to highlight the importance of reviving federal investment in scientific research. While the recently approved federal spending is a step in the right direction, we urge Washington to recommit to instrumental research that generates the scientific breakthroughs that save lives and improve conditions for millions.

Driving new and exciting technologies to market is a major priority for American businesses. However, large start-up costs and the high risk of R&D, particularly early-stage, mean most private companies opt not to invest, leaving a hole the federal government should fill.

The value of basic research to applied technologies cannot be overlooked.

Federal funding for research led to discoveries as fundamental as the universe’s smallest known particle and the first human cancer gene. It’s given us life-altering technologies we rely on every day, from the internet to lithium batteries.

And despite difficulties in calculating the direct return on investment in science, researchers have found that 80 percent of such research can be linked to practical advances.

With approximately 50 percent of annual gross domestic product growth attributed to increases in innovation, the U.S. should continue to expand investment in research and scientific exploration that ultimately boosts America’s competitiveness by supporting a vast array of industries, catalyzing new companies and creating more jobs.

To demonstrate the value of basic research to the economy, The Science Coalition, which represents some of the country’s leading public and private research universities, regularly catalogues success stories of American businesses through its Sparking Economic Growth reports. These reports show that thousands of companies — from energy to agriculture — can trace their roots back to federally funded university research. From the 102 companies analyzed in TSC’s most recent report, 8,900 people attained employment.

Further, the U.S is reaping the rewards of federal investment, as BPC’s American Energy Innovation Council’s 2017 report stated. The Department of Energy, for instance, was instrumental to the development of hydraulic fracturing technology, which contributed $430 billion to U.S. GDP and supported 2.7 million jobs in 2014 alone.

Simply put, the potential for business innovation and jobs growth from initial investments in basic science research can be seen in local communities throughout our country. The payoffs aren’t vague and amorphous as some claim — to the contrary, they are having a real, tangible impact in communities from coast to coast.

Falling behind in science could deprive America of the huge rewards that come from innovative developments. More importantly, it could also jeopardize our national strategic capabilities, especially in terms of cyber and military warfare.

In today’s economy, we can no longer take federal investment in scientific exploration for granted. If Congress is serious about safeguarding America’s global leadership, it must renew its commitment to funding for science.

The affirmation of the value of basic research for fiscal 2018 is immensely encouraging, and the BPC looks forward to working with all stakeholders who remain optimistic about the future of U.S.-based scientific research.

Michele Stockwell is a senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center and executive director of its 501(c)(4) lobbying arm, BPC Action.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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