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Moribund Academic Research Investment Could Have an 'Incalculable Long-Term Consequence' for the United States

A continued reduction in federal research dollars will have an impact on the country, but those who lead research programs at major universities don't agree on what that impact will be. Earlier this month, at an event organized by the Association of American Universities and the Science Coalition, institutional representatives from the University of Pennsylvania; U California, San Diego; Harvard; Ohio State; and other institutions met for a discussion about the connection between America's leadership in science and the country's global competitiveness and related topics.

Research and development spending by the United States still tops the list, according to a report by Battelle and R&D Magazine. However, if R&D investment in the United States stays as moribund as it has been for the last decade, China's double-digit growth in investment could carry it to the No. 1 spot by about 2022.

Academia, which performs about 60 percent of all basic research in the United States and leads world rankings, has been under increasing financial pressures for two reasons: All ARRA funding has expired; and the Congressional sequester has activated across-the-board reductions in federal research programs.

The overall impact may be an exodus of graduate students, choosing to leave research in order to find better job prospects or, in the case of foreign students, choosing to move back home to perform their research there.

A reduction in the number of students who remain in basic research will have lasting impact, said Sandra Brown, the vice chancellor for research at UC San Diego. "This has really an incalculable long-term consequence for the United States in terms of the human capital loss," she said. "Fewer students are motivated to continue on in the research arena. I would like to say though it does not take much to create motivation for that, for people to continue and to see a future in basic science." She referenced the National Institutes of Health Brain initiative as one example that made a big difference for several UCSD graduate students involved in research in that area.

Yet measuring R&D investment alone doesn't tell the whole story, reminded Texas A&M Vice President for Research Glen Laine. Noting that China manages its scientific research "from the top down," Laine explained that government hierarchy there is where decisions are made regarding which research programs receive funding and which scientists will perform the research work.

"Certainly here, if you take a faculty member and try to apply a top-down approach to research, it's been historically unsuccessful," Laine said. "So even though they are investing the money, our system will have a greater return on investment than they will have."

Where research programs are shuttered for lack of funding, those are hard to recreate in later years, should the funding be found again. "The real issue is that some of the very talented faculty in the labs, if they have to close a research program, you have a significant momentum with building your program in the labs and once you close the program, even if the funding opportunity returns in three or four years," said Robert Clark, senior vice president for research at U Rochester. "You've lost the intellectual capital that was in the labs, you've lost the ability to quickly respond and do the work. So to restart that is a significant investment far more than sustaining the program."

Several panelists concurred that federal investment in basic research is crucial for sustaining innovation and economic development. "Basic research provides the building blocks for all innovation," Laine pointed out. "If we fail to adequately fund basic research, we are closing the door that leads to the scientific, medical and technological advancements that power our economy."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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