In May 2015, 30 faculty members—the MIT Committee to Evaluate the Innovation Deficit—issued an important report called “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit.” The argument: declining U.S. funding for basic research is halting or delaying crucial progress in areas as disparate as cybersecurity and space exploration, fusion energy and photonics. The “innovation deficit” is a challenge for all U.S. research universities and for the United States as a whole—a challenge to our well-being, our prosperity, our security, and our future.
As a nation, what should we be willing to pay for basic research on Alzheimer’s that could pave the way to early diagnosis, prevention, treatment, and a cure? What would it be worth to unlock the power of quantum computing, or to find catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into fuels? What should we be willing to pay for the synthetic biology that could lead to a cure for cancer? Citing inspiring examples from 15 fields, the report highlights the gains we might expect with appropriate national investment in fundamental science.
Today, other nations are framing big questions like these—and funding the pursuit of answers. Switzerland, Canada, and China are making serious gains in quantum computing. Japan and several European nations are investing heavily in optical integrated circuits; advances elsewhere are remaking the semiconductor industry, until now overwhelmingly U.S. turf. And the prize in an international student competition in synthetic biology, a field that emerged in the United States, has gone to non-U.S. teams in eight of the past nine years.
Like the U.S. itself, MIT thrives because it is a magnet for global talent. For these exceptional thinkers and doers, much of the attraction lies in the privilege of working together. Yet for decades, they have also come to MIT and other American research universities because the U.S. led the world in support for basic research. Today, with such support lagging here and rising elsewhere, we must help the nation remember that basic science is the wellspring of our future success.