The Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria have not yet set sail, and the world is still flat. Wait, correction, they did sail over 500 years ago, but suddenly the world is flat again—at least according to Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author of The World is Flat. This view is shared by Congressional lawmakers who have only now begun to grasp that the recent drastic increase in outsourcing to countries outside the US has quickly leveled the worldwide playing field in science and technology. The US has lost its distinction as fostering some of the best and brightest minds, and now it is also threatened with losing its economic edge to countries who can do things cheaper, if not even better.
In response to this, the US National Academy of Sciences, in conjunction with the US National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine, recently released the outline of a bipartisan, Congressionally commissioned report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” The report, issued by a National Academies committee, made up of research scientists and department, university and company chairs, outlines four recommendations that should be immediately implemented in order for the US to compete in today's global marketplace: improve K–12 education to increase the science and mathematics talent pool; provide better funding and support to basic science research; make the US the most attractive place to do research to help recruit and retain talent; and create an environment that fosters innovation and keeps ideas in the US (by improving current patent laws).
This report is only one of a series of recent documents that emphasizes the growing concern shared by scientists in the US research community as well as several members of Congress over the loss of an American edge in science and technology. In December 2005, the participants of the National Summit on Competitiveness issued a statement with this ominous opening message: “If trends in US research and education continue, our nation will squander its economic leadership, and the result will be a lower standard of living for the American people” (http://www.usinnovation.org/pdf/National_Summit_Statement.pdf).
The summit emphasized a need to revitalize basic science research by increasing federal funding for long-term research programs as well as earmarking a portion of federal research agencies' budgets for high-risk, high-payoff research. In addition, they made suggestions to enrich the US science and engineering talent pool, including increasing the number of undergraduates receiving degrees in science, math and engineering; altering current immigration laws to make it easier to train and retain foreign talent; and offering programs to expose students to careers in science and technology sectors.
Although most of these suggestions seem like obvious and logical courses of action to members of the scientific community, it is less apparent where the money to carry them out is going to come from. It is clear that, perhaps with the exception of defense-related research, science and technology are not high on the current administration's agenda (even NASA has experienced recent budget cuts). For several years now, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) annual budget has received increases that failed even to track with annual inflation rates, and for the first time in over 30 years, there has been a budget cut for fiscal year (FY) 2006, which is being felt by everyone now applying for new grants or renewals.
The funding cut highlights an alarming shortsightedness on the part of the government when it comes to understanding what ultimately drives the US economy—innovations in science and engineering—and how these innovations come about—basic science research. Unfortunately, this is consistent with the rather conservative attitude that prohibits or attempts to interfere with breakthrough medical research while also meddling with the basic tenets of modern science.
Although promoting education in engineering and science is a great idea, it will be of no use if there are no laboratories for budding young scientists to work in or if they do not have the equipment and supplies to work with. The current budget cuts are making it increasingly difficult for start-up labs to get funding, placing an entire generation of scientists and would-be mentors at risk.
Fortunately, organizations like the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) have already taken steps to push for greater funding in FY 2007. In its annual funding report, FASEB recommended a 5% increase in NIH funding for FY 2007 to $30 billion, and a 14% increase in the US National Science Foundation (NSF) budget to $6.4 billion. FASEB also plans to lobby Congress for the recommended increases in NIH and other federal research agencies' budgets.
In addition, US Senate legislation has recently begun several initiatives that would increase the NSF budget, including the National Innovation Act of 2005 (S.2109), as well as bills being sponsored by the US House Science Committee. There are also the Protecting America's Competitive Edge (PACE) Acts, which include, among other things, money targeted to training and hiring math and science teachers as well as beefing up funding to agencies like the NSF and the US Department of Energy.
Much of the burden falls upon us, the scientists, to publicize the importance of maintaining adequate levels of funding for basic science research. It is clear that laypeople (read: most government officials) do not understand the importance of the research that is our bread and butter, how it gets done and the impact that budget cuts now may have on results several years down the road. But what many local and state government officials do understand are votes, and the effects that cuts to research budgets have on the bottom line of local economies—limited budgets could lead to job loss and no new businesses to invigorate the marketplace—which could translate into unhappy constituents and less support on election day. So we need to actively engage our politicians and remind them of what we do and why it is so important.
After all, if the US wants to remain a strong player in this global field of competitors, education is the key. It is up to scientists to ensure that the people who set the policies and allocate the budgets have a real sense of the importance of basic science research and development.