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From the President: Standing Up for Basic Science

Decline in federal science funding jeopardizes future breakthroughs.

February 22, 2017

Above his lab bench, the late Gobind Khorana, a professor of biology and chemistry at MIT, taped this small handwritten sign: “The difficult, we do today. Tomorrow we do the impossible.”

Professor Khorana wasn’t exaggerating. In the mid-1960s, he had helped identify how RNA codes for the synthesis of proteins; for this breakthrough, he and his collaborators shared the Nobel Prize. Later, he and colleagues synthesized the first fully functional man-made gene in a living cell, laying the groundwork for synthetic biology. In effect, through creating fascinating new scientific knowledge, they also made the impossible possible.

This points to a broader truth, with important implications. Countless features of modern life—from how long we live to how we work, travel, communicate, connect, and entertain ourselves to how we prevent, diagnose, and treat disease—are possible only thanks to the knowledge-making mechanism of fundamental science.

In the MIT community, such a statement may feel self-evident. Yet to policymakers and the general public, the value of basic science—and the importance of investing in it as a nation—may not be so obvious. The fact is that for 70 years, federal support for basic scientific research has paved the way to innovation and economic growth. The development of ultraprecise atomic clocks opened the door to GPS. Work on nuclear magnetic resonance led to the MRI scanner. Number theory enabled encryption, which enables e-commerce—and so on. From smartphones to supercomputers to LED lighting, today’s industries and innovations emerged from fundamental discoveries that were “new” decades ago.

Unfortunately, federal investment in basic research is in decline. At its height in the 1970s, such funding represented more than 2 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. Known as “R&D intensity,” this ratio measures the nation’s commitment to science, and by 2014 it had dropped to just 0.78.

Science is our most reliable path to understanding the material world. If we hope to help solve some of humanity’s great challenges—ensuring cybersecurity, achieving safe nuclear power, combating climate change, curing Alzheimer’s, cancer, and infectious disease, providing enough water and food for the world—renewing our shared federal investment in basic science is crucial. It’s equally vital if we hope to seize emerging opportunities, and jobs, in advanced materials and manufacturing, renewable energy, photonics, quantum computing, synthetic biology, and space exploration. As members of the MIT community, we are well placed to appreciate the urgency of sustaining this investment. And we must do everything we can, individually and together, to make sure the public and our leaders do, too.

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