Five reasons to be worried about the future of American innovation


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1. Scientists are feeling a funding crunch.

Chronicle of Higher Education survey of 11,000 researchers with National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation grants found that 75 percent reduced their recruiting of grad students and research fellows because of economic pressures. Almost half said they had abandoned an area of research they felt was central to their mission.

2. The funding roller-coaster undermines scientists.

“The worst thing you can do for biomedical research or any research is this feast or famine where you rev up the engine and then you take away the fuel,” said Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health at a U.S. Senate appropriations hearing Tuesday.  “And young scientists are left wondering, ‘Do I want to stay on this roller-coaster or do I want to go and do something else.’ Science is not a 100-yard dash, it’s a marathon. You need that kind of stable, predictable support for people that take risks to do research that’s going to have a payoff but not next year, maybe five years from now. We have not had that kind of situation.”

The NIH’s budget doubled from 1998 to 2003, which is the hump you see on the below chart of spendable dollars, corrected for inflation. “We basically have been losing ground ever since. We’re now down more than 20 percent from where we were 12 years ago,” Collins said.


(NIH)

Collins described how the NIH had a steady funding course from 1970 to 1997, “about inflation plus 4 percent.” That’s represented by the dotted line on the chart. If that track had continued, the NIH would have almost $10 billion more in its budget today, Collins said.

3. Cuts in discretionary spending will trickle down to scientific research and innovation.

Discretionary spending has been trending down for years. As Congress has less money to appropriate, innovative research is likely to fall victim.

“Unless we deal with the mandatory spending side of the budget we’re going to squeeze out all the money for all the things you’re talking about,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) at the hearing, where leaders of the government’s  research agencies stressed the role federal funding has in American innovation. “We cannot let the two-thirds of the budget go up 80 percent over the next 10 years and the discretionary side go from 35 [percent] to 23 because that will take your funding down not up.”

4. China is catching up to us.

“We are in real danger of being overtaken by China,” said John P. Holdren, director of the White House office of science and technology policy. “They are increasing their R&D at a rate in the range of 20 to 25 percent a year. If they keep doing that and we stagnate as seems very possible in light of recent trends, they will pass us well before 2022.”


(NIH)

“China is increasing their investments in biomedical research by about 30 percent per year. Now imagine that’s compounded year after year after year and you can see where that’s headed,” Collins said.

5. We’re not keeping talent here.

“When you look at America’s success story it is remarkable how it has benefited from our ability to recruit and retain incredible talent from overseas,” Collins said. “Look at Nobel Prizes that have been given for instance. How many of those who are American citizens were not born in the U.S., they came to the U.S. to do their work. Certainly today when you look at the exciting science going on in our laboratories, it is increasingly the case that the talent that’s there is not going to stay and it used to.”

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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