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Research Funding: Get Worried

Current cuts in basic-research support could not come at a worse time.

Funding for science and technology research in the United States is in trouble. For years, spending by the federal government, particu­larly through the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been critical to supporting the basic research that often leads to innovative technologies and the startup of innovative companies. But as our special report “Follow the Money” explains, sharp cutbacks in the 2005 federal budget for non-­defense-­related research is creating an inhospitable climate for the emergence of new technologies.

One of the most troubling aspects of this crisis in federal funding is that it has gained so little attention from the general public and from the financial community, which has long benefited from federally supported R&D. Leading figures in the U.S. research community, such as Shirley Ann Jackson, president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and 2004 president of the Ameri­can Association for the Advancement of Science, have been vocal and energetic in warning about basic research’s funding woes. But it seems that few outside the university research community are listening, or care.

Current cuts in basic-research support could not, in many ways, come at a worse time. As Jackson points out in our special report, while defense R&D received large increases in the 2005 federal budget, basic research across a broad front is also vital to our national security. For example, the missile defense program, which many scientists think has little chance of success, received one of the largest spending increases in 2005, a 15.8 percent jump to $8.8 billion. But surely it’s worth asking how Congress and the administration expect any ambitious technology program, including missile defense, to succeed without the fundamental research in physics and engineering necessary to support it.

Those who invest in emerging technologies should be particu­larly worried. The opportunities in the private and public equity markets are looking increasingly attractive. Google’s initial public offering was just one of many successful tech IPOs in 2004. And venture capitalists are beginning to invest again in technology startups. All that should bode well for the future of technology financing. But where will the next generation of innovative technologies come from? No one should forget that the search technology behind Google was developed by Sergey Brin and Larry Page as part of an NSF-funded Stanford University digital-library project.

It’s time for those who make their livings by investing in emerging-technology companies to voice concern. Rational voices in the university research community, like Jackson’s, won’t be heard unless financial leaders amplify the message.

The next few months will be crucial, as President Bush’s proposed 2006 federal budget is debated in Congress. While the nation’s enormous deficit will certainly mean greater frugality, legislators need to strengthen, even if only modestly, funding for NSF and NIH. A good starting point would be to hold President Bush and Congress accountable for reneging on 2002 legislation that authorized a doubling of NSF’s budget by 2007. That doubling won’t happen now: that’s clear. But financial leaders who are dependent, one way or another, on government funding of research should ask why not. There should be outrage over the erosion of U.S. research institutions.

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