THE BLOG

Congress Must Address the Innovation Deficit

11/16/2013 01:42 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

House and Senate budget negotiators have a tremendous opportunity this year to address a growing federal deficit and take bold action to spur our nation's economy.

I am referring to an innovation deficit that threatens America's ability to compete on the global economic stage and undermines attempts to address this country's long-term fiscal challenges. The innovation deficit is a problem for higher education institutions, particularly major research universities, but it is more broadly a serious threat to our national economy and even our national security.

It is a deficit driven by the growing gap between what our nation invests in scientific, medical and technological research and what we should be spending to stay ahead of competitors such as China, South Korea and India. That spending gap means higher education institutions and other research organizations face shrinking resources in their efforts to achieve breakthroughs on many fronts, from the race to cure to dreaded diseases such as cancer to the quest to generate cleaner and more efficient energy supplies.

As budget conference committee members work against a Dec. 13 deadline to produce a FY 2014 spending plan, it is this dangerous innovation deficit that should command a large portion of their attention.

But solving this problem will be difficult unless conference committee members eliminate the looming FY 2014 sequestration cuts, those annual, automatic, across-the-board spending reductions that first hit this past March, with another round scheduled for January.

Sequestration, as you may recall, was the result of the failure by Congress following a 2011 budget deal to reach an agreement on how to reduce the federal debt by between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion over 10 years. Congressional leaders and the White House believed the prospect of a decade's worth of these cuts was viewed as so onerous that even a gridlocked Congress would cobble together a deal on the required savings rather than face sequestration.

That proved to be wishful thinking. The resulting sequestration cuts that took effect in March have stripped billions of dollars in federal research funding, imperiled important scientific investigations and pushed young scientists out of the field, says ScienceWorksForU.S., a project of the Association of American Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities and The Science Coalition.

These types of cuts hit at the very core of the U.S. economy, whose strength is linked directly to federal investments in science, technology and human capital. Innovation drives the American economy, and higher education and research and development drive innovation. Recently, the percentage of world research and development funding for the United States has been dropping by roughly 1 percent a year, while China's percentage of global R & D has been growing by 1 percent per year.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted recently on its Director's Blog that, "After 10 years of essentially flat budgets eroded by the effects of inflation, and now precipitously worsened by the impact of sequestration...NIH's purchasing power has been cut by almost 25 percent compared to a decade ago."

Allowing sequestration to continue unabated next year would only exacerbate this harmful trend.

And while it's true that sequestration spared some important student financial aid programs, most notably Pell Grants for low-income students, other financial aid programs such as Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants were cut -- and overall federal student aid programs have been cut by more than $23 billion since 2011. It's important to note that prospective graduate students have been particularly hard hit by these cuts, which in many cases prevent them from pursuing the advanced degrees and attaining the skills needed by employers.

This is not to minimize the need to tackle the budget deficit and figure out a long-term strategy for sustaining mandatory safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare. But recommitting to federal investment in scientific research in order to drive innovation and grow the economy is vitally important if our nation is to resolve its fiscal challenges.

It is imperative for Congress to eliminate sequestration and reaffirm the commitment to federal support of higher education and research that made the United States a global economic super power.