That science, technology, and innovation are inseparable from prosperity is self-evident. Republicans agree. Democrats agree. Scientists agree. Economists agree.
So it goes without saying that our public investments in scientific exploration are always well worth the expense. And because it goes without saying, we don’t need to say much about it in an election year dominated by important matters such as vice presidential marathon times. It is as simple as that.
Or is it?
A bipartisan group of members of Congress led by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN) gathered to reinforce this rosy perception at the first annual Golden Goose Awards on Capitol Hill last week. In the metaphor the goose, representing America’s public investments in fundamental science research, lays golden eggs, which represent unexpected innovations that led to game-changing societal and economic impact.
The three “golden eggs” honored included:
- Navy-funded physics research that led to the development of lasers (now used in too many useful ways to count), despite the opposition of university department heads convinced of its futility;
- Coral reef research that led to a new kind of bone graft material now improving the lives of hundreds of thousands;
- And jellyfish research that led to the identification of a fluorescent protein now widely used in HIV research and cancer treatment to track targeted strands of DNA.
At another recent Washington science event Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA) also promoted science when he contrasted funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (the producer of Sesame Street and a perennial target of Republican budget cuts) with funding for biomedical research: “If it comes a choice between Big Bird or cancer research, look, no matter how much you love big bird, big bird gets fried and sold for fundraising for NIH [National Institutes of Health].” Federal funding for public broadcasting is less than one-sixtieth that of the NIH, but the statement nonetheless underscores the apparent bipartisan agreement on the importance of funding science.
These publicity events underscore the bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill that science is always a source of unexpected progress and thus worthy of our investment.
But beneath the seeming bipartisan harmony on display at events like these lie very significant divisions that are made all the more perilous by their relative obscurity from mainstream view.
Society has changed in many ways since the founding of the National Science Foundation in 1950, and the nature of the scientific enterprise itself has grown alongside it. We know that technology is responsible for more than half of the growth of our economy since then, but technology has become increasingly sophisticated over time. The path from basic discovery to useful new product has become lengthier, more expensive, and more uncertain.
It is no longer enough to simply invest in basic research and hope that the private sector can pick up where government grants leave off. We now know that in addition to supporting a robust basic research enterprise, we must also help bridge the many valleys of death that separate the increasingly numerous steps in the sequence from scientific discovery to successful new business. We need policies that bring into alignment industry’s often short-term, profit-driven incentives with the long-term perspective of federally funded research.
And that is where some of the divisions lie.
The National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, for example, is an Obama administration proposal to help align the incentives for research institutions, community colleges, government, nonprofits, and industry players to collaborate on advanced manufacturing. It’s a great example of the kind of bottom-up, network-oriented and collaboration-driven policy we need to encourage innovation. But funding for this proposal was sidelined by the House Republicans budget committee earlier this year.
Also disappointingly, House Republicans recently passed a misguided bill that would hamstring another successful program bridging important valleys of death in the energy innovation lifecycle: the Department of Energy’s loan guarantee program. Despite the high-profile failure of one partner that shall not be named, this program has been very successful in helping to reduce the cost of clean technologies, leverage billions of dollars in private capital investment, and create an estimated 60,000 private sector jobs for a very small upfront investment.
But applied research programs aside, there are even still divisions on the basic merits of curiosity-driven research itself. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) demonstrated this in 2011 with his political report, “Under the Microscope,” which spends 73 pages mocking cherry-picked studies that, in the expert scientific opinions of the senator and his staff, lack merit.
Then there is the budget sequester, which both parties agreed to and which could cleave nearly $4 billion in funding for research and development out of the budget, permanently depriving our country of potentially hundreds of thousands of new scientists and engineers who will have no career path without these funds. When major science projects are interrupted for lack of funding, and can be difficult to get them back. “Unfortunately, research does not lend itself to episodes of activity,” said Dr. Landon King, vice dean for research at Johns Hopkins University, in an interview with Washington DC’s public radio station, WAMU88.5. “It’s really a longitude experience, and it doesn’t work well to stop and start.”
The fact that both parties agreed to such deep cuts to research—at a time when these investments are overdue for a dramatic increase—should give us pause.
Perhaps it does not go without saying that both major political parties share a rosy, nuanced, and common understanding of the importance of public science and technology investments.
As the Golden Goose Awards highlighted last week, what benefits may come from any individual scientific study are often unknown at the outset; scientists themselves are often surprised by the economic potential of their niche curiosity. But we know that on the whole, and our shared investments in science have always led us toward a brighter future.
To quote Jim Cooper, “it’s time to get serious about science.” But getting serious about science means we can’t take Capitol Hill’s support for granted. To remain competitive in the 21st century, we need to ask our elected representatives to look not under the microscope, but beyond it—to the entrepreneur or innovative company looking to develop the next golden egg that leads to the industries and jobs of the future.
Sean Pool is managing editor of Science Progress and a science policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.