Keeping America's Research Engine Running Requires Strong Federal Investment

05/08/2013 11:40 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013
Getty Images

When it comes to putting our economy on a path toward expansion and growth, and ensuring America's global competitiveness, one of the smartest things we can do is continue to invest in the research that makes discovery and innovation possible. Look no further than the fields of cancer, energy and telecommunications where this investment has not only improved lives, but also created new companies, jobs and economic growth. The return on investment in federally funded scientific research is all around us.

Research funded by federal agencies -- including the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Departments of Agriculture, Energy and Defense -- and conducted by universities and national laboratories across the country is at the root of virtually all of the major technological and medical innovations of the last half century. This science-driven innovation also has fueled as much as half of all U.S. economic growth since World War II.

Each of our universities can point to amazing discoveries made possible because of federal research funding. At the University of California, San Francisco, those results range from the discovery of the genetic underpinnings of cancer, which led to the Nobel Prize in 1989, to collaborative research by UCSF and Stanford scientists that led to the birth of biotechnology. Washington State University scientists led the Green Revolution in wheat breeding that continues to help feed a hungry world and are at the forefront of plant sciences aimed at creating biofuels to power the planet. Federally funded research at Boston University made possible the blue LED lights used in full color displays for cell phones, traffic lights, and arena signs.

Federally funded research also has a tremendous multiplier effect in communities across the nation. NIH funding enabled UCSF to become a key source of jobs -- the second largest employer in San Francisco and the fifth-largest in the Bay Area, contributing more than $6 billion a year to the regional economy. It also has led to the spinoff of biomedical research companies, such as Genentech and more than 90 others, creating economic benefits that extend regionally, nationally and internationally. At Washington State University, the economic impact from agriculture research alone is more than $1.6 billion each year; total research impacts are estimated to exceed $4 billion annually. WSU additionally has played a critical role in the development of a $7 billion tree fruit industry in Washington State, along with a $9 billion wine industry. Boston University researchers, with support from the NIH and NSF, developed a method to quickly and easily detect bacteria for both the food and healthcare industries. The resulting spin-off company already is creating jobs and attracting venture capital. The savings -- in both costs and human health -- from preemptive detection of bacteria promise to be enormous.

Now, magnify these types of impacts across the country -- to the research institutions in every state -- to get a sense of the true power of America's research enterprise. This engine is unique in the world. Our system of publicly funded research conducted at universities across the nation not only powers the discoveries that improve our lives and economy, but educates the next generation of discoverers, innovators, healers and entrepreneurs, ensuring America's continued scientific and technological leadership.

This virtuous cycle, however, only works if we keep the engine that powers it properly tuned. That requires a Congress that not only recognizes its value, but also is committed to providing the strong and sustained funding necessary for its proper functioning. Neglecting this engine -- even in the short term -- will have long-term, negative consequences.

We will be in Washington this week to celebrate members of Congress who have made the maintenance and care of America's research enterprise their priority. This includes 28 Republicans and Democrats who are recipients of The Science Coalition's Champion of Science Award. We will be calling on other members of Congress to join their bipartisan efforts because, despite the proof and the progress that surround us, research budgets are at their lowest levels in a decade. The threat to America's research enterprise is real and growing as sequestration begins to take effect.

To those members of Congress whose actions and votes consistently reflect the belief that federally funded scientific research is an essential engine of discovery and economic growth, we say thank you. To those members of Congress who haven't yet made research funding a priority, we urge you to heed the flashing check engine light on the nation's dashboard before it's too late.

Robert A. Brown, president, Boston University

Susan Desmond-Hellmann, chancellor, the University of California, San Francisco

Elson S. Floyd, president, Washington State University

Their universities are members of The Science Coalition, an organization of the nation's leading research universities dedicated to sustaining strong federal funding of basic scientific research as a means to stimulate the economy, spur innovation and drive America's global competitiveness.