At campuses across the United States, it’s graduation season, a time when the next generation of engineers, researchers, and scientists are making career decisions that might one day change the world.
When I graduated from Amherst College in 1985 with a degree in chemistry, President Reagan was just beginning his second term in office. His administration had been characterized by severe budget cuts to domestic programs, including scientific research and development. As a result, some of my friends choose to go into the defense industry – which was seeing a huge spike in federal funding – instead of chemistry or biochemistry. The signal coming from the administration at the time was that defense, not basic science, would be funded for the long term.
Why do I say this? Because the priorities that presidents set have consequences that last beyond their terms in office. As when I graduated from college, the message scientists, researchers, and innovators are getting from the Trump administration’s proposed budget is that the United States is finished with the business of innovation – that we’ve decided it’s another country’s turn to lead the world in research and science.
The fact of the matter is, not since I was a recent college graduate has any administration come close to being more hostile towards research and development (R&D) than this one. As data from AAAS have shown, the Trump budget would cut non-defense R&D by more than $15.9 billion, or 21.8 percent. It would cut the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and our ability to discover cures for cancer, by 24 percent. It would cut energy programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) by 60 percent. It would cut the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), whose mission is to promote innovation and U.S. industrial competitiveness, by 24 percent, and basic science funding at the National Science Foundation (NSF) by 11 percent.
With such low and unpredictable levels of funding, how many of the most promising researchers will choose the off ramp to completely different career paths instead of contributing to this nation’s R&D? How many life-changing technologies or medical treatments will we never discover? How often will we force promising innovators to take their work to our economic competitors, rather than continuing them here in the United States? These cuts have real, direct, and long-term consequences.
But it’s not just R&D that this budget would impact. Despite President Trump’s campaign appeals to working Americans, his budget slashes investments that would boost manufacturing and create well-paying jobs. For instance, his budget singles out Manufacturing USA, a vital set of institutes that help develop and commercialize advanced manufacturing technologies, for cuts of more than 70 percent. These cuts would completely eliminate all five Department of Energy-led institutes.
The budget also eliminates the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds high-risk technology projects to create new business opportunities in markets like energy efficiency – a sector that experienced one of the fastest job growth rates at 14 percent and created 260,000 new jobs in 2015.
Why do all of these cuts matter so much? Because investments in R&D are absolutely vital to the U.S. economy.
One study of 15 leading economies showed that every $1 investment in R&D generates $20 in economic activity. But if the public sector doesn’t act to make long-term investments and bring private, nonprofit and academic leaders together – the foundation for creating an innovative ecosystem – the private sector will continue to ship manufacturing and R&D abroad.
Our failure to do so is already having real consequences. In 2015, more than one-third of all R&D for U.S. firms was performed in Asia – a 30 percent increase from 2007. Even taking into account private sector investments, as a country we lag behind our competitors around the world in R&D investments. One recent ranking of total R&D spending as a percentage of GDP places the U.S. in 10th place, even though our economy is nearly twice as large as all of the countries that outrank us combined.
The good news is that Republicans and Democrats have already said the Trump budget is dead on arrival in Congress. Many members of both parties understand the importance of federal support for R&D, and what these investments mean for our economy.
In fact, I recently introduced the Invent and Manufacture in America Act with Republican Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), which increases the R&D tax credit for companies that not only design in America but make in America. This effort builds on the success I’ve had finding Republican senators to support, pass and get signed into law bills to strengthen manufacturing and support R&D. These recent wins include a permanent extension of the R&D tax credit to startups and small businesses, and the Defend Trade Secrets Act, which creates new federal protections for intellectual property.
It’s up to each of us to keep that momentum going. That requires us to make the case to the American people why these investments in R&D are so important. Those of us who’ve seen the impact of research and development firsthand have to help Americans appreciate the strong link between federal investment in R&D and economic growth, job creation and quality of life.
That includes scientists. As I said when I gave the AAAS William D. Carey lecture earlier this year, “for a scientist looking at our world, our community, and our culture, publishing is not enough. Your wider mission can no longer be just education and neutral research. Today, your mission should also include increasing public understanding in fundamental matters of science, technology, engineering, and medicine.” Defending science starts with publicizing – not just publishing – the important work you do.