Refueling America's Research

04/23/2015 11:34 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

When is the last time basic science research touched your life? If you're using a cellphone or the Internet, drinking clean water, using public transportation, or receiving medical care, for example, then the answer is "right now"!

Wherever you look, from health care to consumer goods, wireless communication to transportation, food to national security, we are surrounded by and dependent upon innovations made possible by basic research. These incredible innovations arise from a pool of core scientific discoveries that are overwhelmingly funded by federal research grants.

Despite this success, federal research dollars are in steep decline. This is why I wrote a letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee in support of both the president's National Science Foundation budget request of $7.7 billion and the distribution of funds in a balanced research and education portfolio. Twenty-two other senators joined me in sending the letter, because they also understand the vital importance of research.

Unfortunately, not everyone on Capitol Hill agrees with us.

Yesterday the House Science Committee considered the Republican legislation to reauthorize the National Science Foundation and other federal research agencies. Rather than keeping American clean energy research on top in an increasingly competitive world, the Republican reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act would undermine it by cutting vital programs in the Department of Energy (DOE). Innovation coming out of NSF and DOE helps drive the clean energy revolution from which our nation and planet benefit.

The Republican bill also reduces NSF funds for social science and the geosciences. By attacking geoscience funding because of climate change, Republicans are also undermining the education and research that supports the American energy industry. In fact, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists joined with 18 other geoscience professional societies to warn that the House legislation "critically underfunds" the NSF's geoscience programs. The country won't derive any benefit from the Republicans' political calculus that leads to a regressive solution for science funding.

Not only do investments in basic research contribute to technical advances that we enjoy every day, but they are critical to our national economy and education system. America's economic success in the 20th century was due in large part to its commitment to investments in science and engineering research. Unfortunately, the recent American Academy of Arts and Sciences "Restoring the Foundation" report indicates that the United States has slipped to 10th place among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development nations in overall research and development as a percentage of gross national product.

To put the current underinvestment in context, the fraction of this year's budget committed to research and development will be the lowest since 1968. A forthcoming study from MIT, "Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens U.S. Innovation Deficit," will outline the consequences of undervaluing research and development and provide tangible examples of U.S. competitiveness at risk.

If we don't strengthen our support of scientific research, the engine of innovation that gave our nation a competitive edge in the last century may lose steam. A "refuel" is in order to keep our job-stimulating innovation engine on pace. America's economic competitors are moving aggressively to increase their own investments, and it would be incredibly short-sighted to fall behind.

China's research and development investment, for example, is growing at an average annual rate of 8 percent above inflation. At this rate, China will overtake the United States in just eight years. Talented researchers and innovators will be drawn to countries with the most advanced laboratories and research funding.

It has been shown that the country or region in which a discovery occurs often experiences long-term economic benefits from that original idea. In other words, if a discovery happens in China's laboratories, it will probably be built in China's factories as well. If we lag behind other countries, we risk losing research leaders and the economic benefits resulting from their innovations. We must not take for granted our historical leadership in research and development while others accelerate to catch up.

Maintaining a healthy innovation ecosystem requires R&D investments along with a strong workforce to bring the ideas to life. Demand for highly educated and highly trained professionals in STEM and healthcare-related fields are at an all-time high. The United States must produce 1 million more STEM professionals in the next decade to keep up with workforce needs in growing STEM fields. Building a qualified workforce will help keep these good jobs in America, contributing to a stronger middle class.

Our nation is ranked 26th in math and 21st in science performance. We cannot afford to continue to fall further behind in STEM education. It is essential that we endow our children with the technical understanding that their generation will need to tackle the environmental, health, and economic challenges of the next century and beyond.

The NSF is the only federal agency specifically responsible for supporting essential education and research across all science and engineering fields--a role that is vital to economic competitiveness and to cultivating a workforce capable of keeping pace with the global economy. Nearly one out of every five basic research projects at colleges and universities across the United States is supported by the NSF.

Research funded by the NSF has led to discoveries as small as proteins that protect cells from freezing, and to those as large as new planets. It's led to advanced radar systems and next-generation high-definition videoconferencing, to more efficient and affordable solar energy materials and noninvasive medical technologies like the MRI.

And Google, which has a net worth of $33.3 billion and 53,600 employees, was started by students conducting research on digital libraries supported by an NSF grant. Talk about a return on investment!

Some lawmakers think basic research is not essential, but anyone who depends on modern search engines for finding information might argue that the NSF's support of digital libraries research was not such a trivial pursuit. The numbers show that federal research investments pay off by strengthening our nation's workforce and competitiveness. Federal spending priorities should reflect this fact by making robust investments in a balanced portfolio of STEM education and basic research every year.

That's why I'm strongly urging Congress to support President Obama's 2016 NSF budget and reauthorize the American COMPETES Act in a way that keeps our national research efforts globally competitive.