COVID-19 and Challenges from Abroad Make Robust New Federal Investments in Scientific Research Both Timely and Necessary
In response to the dawn of the Nuclear Age, the rise of the Soviet Union as a rival global superpower, and the tantalizing prospect of space exploration and other technological advancements in the wake of World War II, the federal government invested significant amounts of federal dollars into university-based scientific research. This government-university partnership laid the groundwork for virtually every major American technological advancement since, from the moon landing to the development of the Internet to chemotherapy to the mRNA vaccine technology that is helping us beat COVID-19. In turn, those innovations made the United States immeasurably stronger and led to untold billions of dollars in economic benefits.
Today we face a different, but no less challenging, world. As we emerge from the first major global pandemic in a century, America’s global economic and military leadership is increasingly challenged by emerging superpowers like China. And dark forces – such as international and domestic hackers and terrorists – imperil our security and our democracy.
But even as new challenges have arisen and new threats have emerged, America’s commitment to the government-university partnership has weakened in recent decades. For example:
- Federal funding for research and development as a share of the U.S. economy has declined from nearly 1.9 percent of the gross domestic product in 1964 to 0.62 percent of GDP in 2018.
- Since 1995, the United States has slipped from 4th place to 10th place in the world for research and development investment as a percentage of GDP.
- In 1967, America (from both government and private sources) accounted for 61 percent of global investments in research and development. By 2017, the U.S. share of global research-and-development spending had fallen to half of what it was in 1967.
- According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for higher education is approximately $9 billion below what it was before the 2008 financial crash, when adjusted for inflation.
- And while the United States has effectively been holding our research investments flat for more than a decade, countries like China, South Korea, and others have been actively making major new investments in scientific exploration.
The COVID-19 pandemic, though, has reawakened many Americans to the real-world benefits of scientific research. Polls show that, overwhelmingly, Americans want the United States to continue to lead the world in science, technology, and innovation.
As congressional committees begin their work on Fiscal Year 2022 appropriations, using President Biden’s proposed budget as a starting point, it is clearer than ever before that the federal government must renew its longstanding commitment to scientific research. This is the ideal time for Congress to make bold investments in scientific research and student aid to train new generations of Americans and replenish the world’s most talented and innovative workforce. With rising economic competition and the expiration of the Budget Control Act’s discretionary spending limits, the moment cries out for renewing the longstanding government-university partnership that supports our public health, national security, and economic competitiveness.