MIT Report Calls for Renewed U.S. Investment in Basic Research

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Publication date: 
4 June 2015

A new report published by the MIT Committee to Evaluate the Innovation Deficit calls for the U.S. to shore up its declining investments in basic research, highlighting fifteen under-exploited areas of science and technology in which the authors believe a more robust basic research investment would help to improve society, shape and maintain U.S. economic power, and provide other significant payoffs in health, energy, high-tech industry, space exploration, and national defense.  The 40-page report, titled The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit, is part of a broader campaign of science associations and universities, led by MIT, to draw attention to what is being called the innovation deficit, or the gap between the actual federal investments in research and higher education and what experts contend the investments need to be if the U.S. is to remain the world’s innovation leader.

According to the report, the widespread concern over a growing U.S. innovation deficit is attributable in part to the declining public investment in research and development (R&D) since the mid-1960s.  Data provided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science shows that, as a share of the total federal budget, R&D has fallen from 11.7 percent in 1965 to a low of 3.6 percent in 2015.  Furthermore, of the most notable scientific highlights of 2014 - the first landing on a comet, the discovery of the Higgs Boson, the development of the world’s fastest supercomputer, and the surge in research on plant biology to meet global food requirements - none were U.S.-led achievements.  At the same time, China is on track to surpass the U.S. and become the largest spender on R&D internationally by the 2020s, according to R&D Magazine.

The report emphasizes that the federal component of R&D funding is more important now than ever, because other sources of R&D are declining:  “As competitive pressures have increased, basic research has essentially disappeared from U.S. companies, leaving them dependent on federally-funded, university-based basic research to fuel innovation.  This shift means that federal support of basic research is even more tightly coupled to national economic competitiveness.”  This makes it all the more troubling that R&D is decreasing rapidly as a share of the federal budget.  “The central role of federal research support means that sudden changes in funding levels such as the recent sequester can disrupt research efforts and cause long term damage, especially to the pipeline of scientific talent on which U.S. research leadership ultimately depends.

The introduction to the report calls for an “innovation dividend which could boost our economy, improve human lives, and strengthen the U.S. strategically.”  The remainder of the report provides examples of areas of science the government can fund in order to pursue that innovation dividend – including cybersecurity, space exploration, plant sciences, quantum information technologies, fusion energy, photonics, materials discovery and processing, robotics, and batteries. As argued in the report, in addition to sustaining a pipeline of scientific talent, federal funding in basic research is key to saving lives through a better understanding of disease, putting the U.S. at the forefront of emerging clean energy technologies, opening up new multi-billion dollar industries, building the innovation centers of the future, ensuring American leadership, exploring the mysteries of space, enabling better policy decisions, and strengthening our defense.

In order to retake the clear lead in science internationally, argues the report, the U.S. must increase its investment in such fundamental research.  While basic research often seems to have no immediate payoff, tells the report, it nonetheless lays the groundwork for further discoveries, advances, technologies and industries.  

The report was chaired by Marc A. Kastner, Donner Professor Physics at MIT.  All other authors are also members of the MIT faculty, drawn from departments as wide-ranging as environmental policy, electrical engineering, economics, biology, and computer science.