Decreased federal investment in academic basic research will hinder innovation in industries and at universities, according to a report, entitled “The Future Postponed,” written by a committee of 30 MIT faculty members and administrators.
The report, released Monday, listed 15 specific areas of basic research that would benefit from increased government support. The committee says that its aim is to combat the growing innovation deficit between the U.S. and other nations.
The Tech spoke with physics professor Mark Kastner, chair of the MIT Committee to Evaluate the Innovation Deficit, which prepared the report. He said that the primary goal of the report was to stimulate interest among political leaders about promising areas of research that require more federal funding.
“It’s important to remind Congress and the public that the health of the country depends on doing research. Congress could easily find money for research because it’s a very small fraction of the federal budget,” Kastner said.
The portion of the federal budget spent on research and development has shrunk from 9.1 percent in 1968 to 3.6 percent in the 2015 budget. In comparison, Europe and Asia have been steadily increasing their investments, with China expected to become the world’s largest single investor in research and development by the early 2020s, according to projections from the Battelle Memorial Institute and R&D magazine.
MIT’s report was unveiled in Washington to members of the press on Monday in an event organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, MIT, and other academic associations. The rollout was followed by briefings for congressional and federal administration staff.
The report argues that with the declining role of basic research in industry, federally funded research at the university level is the primary avenue for scientific innovation. This leaves research efforts vulnerable to abrupt changes in funding, like the sequestration cuts of 2011 and 2013. Unreliable funding disrupts long-term projects that the report suggests are necessary to promote innovation.
In the wake of this declining public investment in research, the report states that other countries have gained the upper hand in contributing to major scientific accomplishments. The European Space Agency successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet after a 10-year effort, and CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson subatomic particle.
The report does not discuss any specific costs for funding these areas of research, nor does it lobby for any specific pieces of legislation. According to Kastner, more concrete cost estimates will be outlined in a second-phase report by the committee that will be targeted at philanthropists. “What we were trying to do in this report was to write stories in an easily understood language to bring attention to the fact that we are not investing like we should,” Kastner said.
One of the areas of research outlined in the report is Alzheimer’s disease, which is still not well understood and currently costs Medicare $150 billion per year. Other areas discussed include space exploration, robotics, and drug development to counter antibiotic-resistant bacteria.