In recent years, research universities across the country have faced squeezed public financial support as the agencies that channel funds through them, like the National Institutes of Health (NIH), dealt with sequestration and the 2013 cuts in federal government funding.
So what does the $1.5 trillion spending measure that passed in Congress in December mean for scientific research and the so-called innovation deficit in the United States?
The 2016 budget hike for agencies like NIH, which received a $2 billion boost, bodes well for scientific funding, according to Jennifer Poulakidas, the vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities in Nextgov.
The boosted budget for NIH includes a $350 million increase for Alzheimer’s research, a $303 million increase for programs to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria and an $85 million increase for the BRAIN Initiative. Programs to reduce opioid abuse saw a nearly 300 percent increase.
This was welcome news across the medical research community and the larger scientific community.
The challenge for innovation in the United States, however, is at least two-pronged: to catch up with loses in scientific knowledge from recent years, and to keep up with the rest of the world.
The “costs” of sequestration were passed on to the scientific community in public research institutes and universities, as agencies like the NIH and the National Science Foundation (NSF) had to eliminate hundreds of competitive research grants. This translated into fewer funding opportunities for young researchers, schools accepting fewer graduate students, and on the less worrisome end of the scale, a fiercer competition for grants.
On the bright side, during this same period, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has made it a priority to devote greater resources to education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) – for students in preschool through university. Obama’s “Educate to Innovate” campaign aims at increasing the number of students and teachers who are proficient in these fields. The research community points out the national innovation pipeline hits a gap when those newly trained STEM students attempt to translate their skills into research outcomes.
According to the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook 2014, China was well on track to be the world’s top research and development spender by around 2019, while squeezed R and D budgets in the U.S., the EU and Japan were reducing these countries’ traditional weight in science and technology research. Whether this projection changes in light of new trouble for the Chinese economy is yet to be seen, but historically nations invest more in entrepreneurship and innovation when traditional industries show signs of weakness in slowing economies.
The story is similar in other important economies according to the OECD. For example, the BRIICS (Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa) produced around 12 percent of the top-quality scientific publications in 2013, almost twice its share of a decade ago and compared against 28 percent in the United States.
With these kinds of resources invested in science and technology, the race to the top in innovation may become harder for the United States, but it will certainly bode well for entrepreneurship now blossoming in all economies. This is a trend that should lead the U.S. to reflect on its approach to sustaining a healthy flow of scientific knowledge, but also to ensure knowledge is actually translated into cutting-edge technological innovation.
For example, links between research institutes, industry, entrepreneurial education and incentives for scientists will need to be efficient and constantly tuned to ensure the innovation ecosystem operates at its full potential. To stay ahead, or keep up, U.S. policymakers would be smart to check not just the quantity of research dollars, but also the efficiency of the processes involved in the pipeline from skills to lab research to innovations.
Being around entrepreneurs makes it easy to be bullish on our ability to achieve this in America. Vivek Wadhwa in this morning’s Washington Post reminds us that the United States is “in the middle of a dramatic revival and rejuvenation, propelled by an amazing wave of technological innovations.” He continues to note that “these breakthroughs are … enabling entrepreneurs to solve the grand challenges of humanity: disease, hunger, clean water, energy, education and security.” Let us hope that our national budget priorities continue to provide such entrepreneurs the basic scientific research from which to unearth and bring to the masses tomorrow’s solutions.
Photo Credit: Flickr
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