The highest investment priority in Washington should be to double the federal budget for scientific research. No other federal expenditure would create more jobs and wealth or do more to strengthen our world leadership, protect the environment and promote better health and education for all Americans. For the security of our future, we must make this investment now.
When I became speaker of the House in 1995 and we began to work toward a balanced budget, we were prepared to cut discretionary spending almost everywhere. At the request of Rep. John Porter, I met with the research vice presidents of all the major pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms. Even though they were overwhelmingly ideologically conservative, pro-free market and profit oriented, they unanimously agreed that the engine that was driving new medicines, new jobs and new profits was federal investment in basic scientific research and that American entrepreneurs would run out of new products and new services without that basic research.
Because of their convincing testimony, we protected scientific research. It became the one area that grew consistently despite the pressures to balance the budget.
After four years of interviewing scientists, entrepreneurs, academicians and business leaders, I now am even more convinced that we need a broad-front approach to funding basic research and that our goal should be to double scientific research throughout the federal government in the next five years.
Doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health would be a good start because of its potential to benefit all Americans directly. But many of the most important breakthroughs that are transforming our ability to provide better health and health care come from the National Science Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control, the laboratories of the Department of Energy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
We are on the edge of major scientific breakthroughs that will transform our lives. Consider a few of the stunning possibilities:
The first computer with a transistor, TRADIC, was built in 1955 with 800 transistors. Today's Pentium II chip has 7.5 million transistors. At Georgia Tech, scientists believe an experimental chip will be built in 2000 with a billion transistors and, within 15 to 20 years, there will be a chip with one trillion transistors. Imagine what a laptop 13,000 times as powerful as today's would be like.
Polio and smallpox have been eliminated in the United States, and AIDS deaths are declining because of the research and public health leadership of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, with the increase in biological weapons, the CDC is researching immunizations and formulating plans to combat epidemic outbreaks from bioterrorist attacks. The comfort and safety we enjoy now will continue only if scientific funding supports the CDC's ability to do prevention research.
Nanotechnology, the science of developing tools and machines as small as one molecule, will have as big an impact on our lives as transistors and chips did in the past 40 years. Imagine highly specialized machines you ingest, systems for security smaller than a piece of dust and collectively intelligent household appliances and cars. The implications for defense, public safety and health are astounding.
The human genome revolution has just begun. Francis Crick (the Nobel Prize winning co-discoverer of DNA) believes it will take a century of research to understand and apply all the potential breakthroughs this new knowledge makes possible. The implications for human health, food production and the environment are almost incalculable.
New instruments (largely a product of National Science Foundation grants) make possible new measurements of the human brain while it is working (largely funded by NIH grants). This synergistic investment in better knowledge through better technology will prove that mental health parity is essential to any health policy and will offer opportunities to cure schizophrenia, bipolar disease, Alzheimer's and other current challenges.
These five areas only scratch the surface of the potential for greater wealth, more jobs, a higher quality of life, greater national security and a future of unlimited opportunity. Moreover, in this age of scientific revolutions, many of the really big changes that will transform our lives will come from unpredictable breakthroughs -- as they have in similar eras of our history.
If this case is so self-evident, why is it so hard to get Washington to double the budget for federal scientific research? The answer is not logic but politics. I have found scientists and investors to be among the least effective lobbyists and have watched more focused special interests receive more money than they deserve while the future was starved of resources.
There will be a grand agreement between the Republican Congress and the Clinton administration this fall. In that grand agreement, the budget caps will be broken. At that time, Congress and the president should agree that a substantial increase in all funding for scientific research should be part of that deal. In light of our budgetary surplus, the American people will support the broken caps for a combination of saving Social Security and Medicare, cutting taxes and strengthening vital government spending. Science research is vital to America's future and therefore is clearly "vital government spending."
Out of our sense of patriotism and our own enlightened self-interest, we should lobby our representatives and senators and insist that federal investment in scientific research be doubled over the next five years.
The down payment of the first 20 percent increase in all areas of scientific research should be made this month or next. Anything less will weaken the future for all of us.
The writer, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former speaker of the House.