No Time for Complacency

America is under-investing in basic research, and professors and members of Congress can't let that continue, Sen. Bill Frist writes.


October 16, 2006

As a doctor and scientist, I'm firmly convinced that America's future as a world economic leader lies with our scientific establishment. For too long, America has let basic research spending stagnate in many fields.

If we wish to remain the world's economic leader, Congress needs to embrace additional investments in research and development: Technological advances have brought us important economic catalysts ranging from the internal combustion engine to the Internet. Without continuing technological advances, we'll fall behind the rest of the world.  

We haven't reached the crisis point yet. We still have the best research universities in the world, take home a lion's share of Nobel prizes in the sciences (including all of those awarded in this year) and lead the planet in most high tech fields. We produce more top scientists and engineers per capita than any country with an economy even close to our size.

But we can't afford to be complacent. For the first time since we won the Cold War, other nations are mounting an aggressive challenge to the United States' position as a world leader in science. China and India combined produce more than twice as many engineers each year than the United States. Both have exceeded our rate of economic growth over the past decade and, although they're starting from a much lower base, both have increased funding for basic research more quickly than we have.  

This presents a challenge because we're currently under-investing in basic research.  Although the level of overall federal scientific spending sits at an all-time high in real dollar terms, as a percentage of GDP it remains smaller than it was during the Apollo program years of the late 1960s. Distressingly, furthermore, some recent scientific policies shifted our own priorities away from basic research. While I have nothing against applied research -- as a doctor, I never did any other kind -- we ultimately need to do more basic research if we want to retain our position as a world leader. The invention of devices like the iPod, a wonderful machine that has changed the way we listen to music, will never result in a Nobel Prize.  Without new fundamental discoveries about the nature of the universe and our world, the United States can't remain the world's economic and technological leader.  

While efforts that I led to double the National Institutes of Health budget have resulted in a healthy increase in basic research in the life sciences, basic research capacity in the physical sciences has remained almost flat in real dollar terms. This needs to change.

Working with members of both parties, therefore, I'm planning to lead an effort to lay out a roadmap for renewed investment in basic research so we can retain America's global leadership in the sciences. The legislation I'm supporting would authorize a 100 percent increase in funding for both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy's Office of Science. In addition, it will launch efforts to increase high-risk/high-reward cutting edge research efforts in the Department of Energy and at the Commerce Department’s National Institute for Standards and Technology. Thirty-eight Senators, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, have already agreed to co-sponsor the bill.

All this, however, will do little good unless we train the next generation of scientists. Through the SMART grant program that I authored, we've already given targeted increases in student aid to bright students studying science and math at the college level. Now we need to improve things in the earlier in the education system. Thus, this legislation launches an effort to improve science and math education at the elementary and secondary levels. It also establishes new training programs for teachers, offers grants to states to improve coordination of science education, helps establish more math and science secondary schools, and will strengthen partnerships between universities and the National Science Foundation.

Although very few members of Congress will openly oppose science funding in principle, many believe that we have more urgent priorities. I disagree. Basic research should rank among our very top priorities for increased funding. Nonetheless, action on competitiveness legislation will require increased efforts to convince members of Congress that basic research matters. It’s vital that research university faculty and administrators do everything they can to make sure that elected members of the Senate and House of Representatives understand the importance of this legislation.

America stands at a crossroads. Unless we move to expand our basic research establishment, we could very well face economic stagnation and a loss of global scientific leadership. We can't afford to let that happen.


Sen. Bill Frist, a former assistant professor of surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical School, is majority leader of the United States Senate.


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