The Long Road to Increased Science Funding
Determined effort by scientists and engineers will be needed to keep federal support on its upward trajectory.
For decades, the United States has quietly supported one of the key sources of our nation's innovation and creativity-federal funding of basic scientific, medical, and engineering research. Federal investments in research have yielded enormous benefits to society, spawning entire new industries that now generate a substantial portion of our nation's economic activity.
Continuation of our nation's brilliant record of achievement in the creation of knowledge is threatened, however, by the decline in federal R&D spending. In 1965, government investment in R&D was equal to roughly 2.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Thirty-two years later, that figure has dropped to just 0.8 percent. Current projections indicate that the federal R&D budget will continue to decline as a fraction of GDP.
We recently introduced the National Research Investment Act of 1998 (S. 1305), which would double the federal investment in "nondefense basic scientific, medical and precompetitive engineering research" to $68 billion over the next 10 years. The bill would authorize a 7 percent increase (in nominal dollars exclusive of inflation and GDP growth) in funding per year for the science and technology portfolios of 12 federal agencies, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NIH budget would increase from $13.6 billion this year to $27.2 billion by 2008. The bill stipulates that research results be made available in the public domain, that funds be allocated using a peer-review system, and that all of the spending increases be made to fit within the discretionary spending caps established by the balanced budget agreement.
The bill is an important declaration of principles, but it will require 10 years of patient follow-through if its goals are to be realized. With the end of the Cold War, it is time for the scientific and engineering communities to articulate more forcefully the economic value of what they do. Stated bluntly, the research community will have to become organized in a way that it has not been before.
Scientists and engineers are well positioned to make their case to the taxpaying public and their congressional representatives. Universities employ 2.5 million people in this country. That's more than the employment provided by the automobile, aerospace, and textile industries combined. Think about how influential any one of those industries is in Washington today compared to science and engineering. Moreover, universities are geographically distributed and often are the largest or second largest employer in any given congressional district. The research community is truly a sleeping giant on the U.S. political landscape.
We believe that S. 1305 represents the best opportunity to awaken that latent political force and build a bipartisan national consensus on significantly increasing the federal investment in civilian R&D over the next decade. The bill is a coalition-building vehicle and an argument that a knowledge-based society must continue to grow its most critical resource: its store of knowledge.
The next few months will be a crucial time for building support for R&D investments. Both political parties have largely cleared the decks with respect to the agendas they have been pursuing for the past several years, and recent improvements in the projected five-year revenue outlook give both parties more room to maneuver within the confines of the federal balanced budget agreement. The federal budget pie is now being sliced for the next half-decade. It is an important time, therefore, for the research community to make its case for increased investments in publicly financed research.
We are also encouraged by the policy work being carried out by our colleagues in the House of Representatives. Under the able direction of Rep. Vernon Ehlers of Michigan, and with the blessing of House leadership, the House Science Committee is drafting a policy document that is intended to guide the federal research infrastructure for the next few decades.
We believe that our efforts and those on the House side are complementary. We ask that you in the scientific community engage with us and help us to reinvigorate the federal research enterprise. We need your help to encourage your senators to cosponsor S. 1305, and the House Science Committee needs your input into its important science policy study. Together, we can ensure that our nation remains a leader in science and technology well into the next century.
Phil Gramm is a Republican senator from Texas, Joseph I. Lieberman is a Democratic senator from Connecticut, Pete V. Domenici is a Republican senator from New Mexico, and Jeff Bingaman is a Democratic senator from New Mexico.