Basic Research Under Fire

 

June 2012

NSPE TODAY: POLICY PERSPECTIVES
Basic Research Under Fire

BY SARAH OGDEN

 

magnetic resonance imaging
Basic research funded by the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies led to the development of magnetic resonance
imaging.

As our society becomes increasingly driven by technology, research and development play an important role in economic growth. Between 1948 and 2007, 58% of multifactor productivity growth in the United States was attributed to R&D. About 60% of the funding for basic research conducted in the U.S. comes from federal spending, putting the federal government in the position of maintaining momentum for some of the country's largest R&D programs. While many of our global competitors are increasing funding for science and engineering research, however, the rate of growth of research funding in the U.S. is slowing.
 
Much of the decline in federal R&D funding growth (which is not a decline in overall R&D funding) is due to the economy. Though basic science and engineering research has a long history of bipartisan support, it has become a favorite target of lawmakers looking for savings. Recent budget cuts have repeatedly threatened funding for basic research at institutions like the National Science Foundation (NSF).
 
Funding for basic research may be harder to swallow in a recession because unlike applied research, whose near-term purpose and commercial applications are usually clear, the merits of basic research are less obvious. Basic research expands our knowledge about the world around us, but pragmatic politicians need to show voters how they're helping the economy today.
 
The flip side, of course, is that basic research is critical to feeding the information pipeline that leads to applied research. If applied research involves solving a puzzle, basic research often creates the puzzle pieces. In a time when the magic words are "economy" and "growth," the key to selling basic research may be its success stories.
 
The NSF often touts its most famous success story in defense of basic research. Sergey Brin and Larry Page founded Google based on a prototype search engine—a search engine they were able to develop thanks to a $4.5 million NSF research grant given to Stanford University. Other start-up companies that have bloomed into giants, such as Symantec and Bose, also grew from NSF basic research grants.
 
Federal basic research funding contributed to other life-changing technologies:

 

  • Infrared imaging technology was developed from research by the NSF, the Department of Defense, NASA, and the Department of Agriculture;
  • Basic research on atomic nuclei funded by the NSF, the Department of Energy, and the National Institutes of Health led to magnetic resonance imaging; and
  • The NSF, the Department of Energy, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the Office of Naval Research funded basic research into semiconductors that led to full-color displays on cell phones and flat-panel televisions and computers.

NSPE supports a robust federal R&D program, which is fundamental to advancing the engineering profession. NSPE's long-time support of the NSF is codified in a professional policy on research, with a pledge "to support the continued development of a strong National Science Foundation dedicated to furthering basic research in the sciences and engineering." NSPE is also a member of the Coalition for National Science Funding, an alliance of more than 125 organizations that supports increasing national investment in the National Science Foundation's research and education programs.

NSPE will continue to advocate for a federal R&D program that meets the needs of an increasingly technical nation that must compete in a global market. The budget for fiscal year 2013 is unlikely to be finalized until after the November elections, but the president has requested a total federal R&D budget of $140.8 billion across all agencies, $1.9 billion more than he received in FY12.
 
Some agencies are likely to fare well next year, including the NSF. The Senate Appropriations Committee has already approved a $299 million increase to the NSF's current funding, bringing its budget to $7.273 billion in FY13; and the House Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee is recommending a funding level of $7.332 billion.
 
Research cuts could also be on the horizon. DARPA may be a casualty of the defense budget sequester that begins at the end of 2012. Fiscal conservatives also have signaled reluctance to fund energy R&D initiatives they view as risky.
 
Whether it is basic or applied research, assembling the puzzle or creating the pieces, R&D is a cornerstone of innovation. The federal government must continue to invest in R&D if the United States is to grow its economy and compete in the global marketplace.