Saturday, February 03, 2007

Obama on Science Funding

In my first overtly political post, I have chosen to include text from The Audacity of Hope. I was struck by how in two pages he:
  1. Outlined a brief history of government sponsored research.
  2. Relayed a personal vignette of a conversation with one of the world's top scientists.
  3. Offered hope for a plan to reinvgorate academic research.
Well, okay - the last element consists of letting the highways get a few more potholes in the name of scientific research. Maybe he will need a better plan than that...

This is from pages 165-167.

There's one other aspect of our educational system that merits attention - one that speaks to the heart of America's competitiveness. Since Lincoln signed the Morrill Act and created the system of land grant colleges, institutions of higher learning have served as the nation's primary research and development laboratories. It's through these institutions that we've trained the innovators of the future, with the federal government providing critical support for the infrastructure – everything from chemistry labs to particle accelerators – and the dollars for research that may have an immediate commercial application but that can ultimately lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

Here, too, our policies have been moving in the wrong direction. At the 2006 Northwestern University commencement, I fell into a conversation with Dr. Robert Langer, an Institute Professor of chemical engineering at MIT and one of the nation's foremost scientists. Langer isn't just an ivory tower academic – he holds more than five hundred patents, and his research has led to everything from the development of the nicotine patch to brain cancer treatments. As we waited for the procession to begin, I asked him about his current work, and he mentioned his research in tissue engineering, research that promised new, more effective methods of delivering drugs to the body. Remembering the recent controversies surrounding stem cell research, I asked him whether the Bush Administration's limitation on the number of stem cell lines was the biggest impediment to advances in his field. He shook his head.

“Having more stem cell lines would definitely be useful,” Langer told me, "but the real problem we're seeing is significant cutbacks in federal grants." He explained that fifteen years ago, 20 to 30 percent of all research proposals received significant federal support. That level is now closer to 10 percent. For scientists and researchers, this means more time spent raising money and less time spent on research. It also means that each year, more and more promising avenues of research are cut off – especially the high-risk research that may ultimately yield the biggest rewards.

Dr. Langer's observation isn't unique. Each month, it seems, scientists and engineers visit my office to discuss the federal government's diminished commitment to funding basic scientific research. Over the last three decades federal funding for the physical, mathematical, and engineering sciences has declined as a percentage of GDP - just at the time when other countries are substantially increasing their own R & D budgets. And as Dr. Langer points out, our declining support for basic research has a direct impact on the number of young people going into math, science, and engineering which helps explain why China in graduating eight times as many engineers as the United States every year.

If we want an innovation economy, one that generates more Googles each year, then we have to invest in our future innovators by doubling federal funding of basic research over the next five years, training one hundred thousand more engineers and scientists over the next four years, and providing new research grants to the most outstanding early-career researchers in the country. The total price tag for maintaining our scientific and technological edge comes out to approximately $42 billion over five years - real money, to be sure, but just 15 percent of the most recent federal highway bill.

In other words, we can afford to do what needs to be done. What's missing is not money, but a national sense of urgency.

Okay... I could be convinced that breakthroughs in science and engineering could figure out great new ways to fill in those potholes.

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