R&D Defenders Are 0ut-Numbered

More than just a mindless tweet or rhetoric before a red-capped throng, Trump’s proposed 2018 budget revealed the cruel realities of; raising spending on defense and leaving entitlements untouched while cutting discretionary spending costs including R&D. More than just the opening of perennial negotiations, with Congress yesterday’s budget marked “the day the music died” not only for forgotten folks now trapped in poverty but for all citizens who leave government to politicians they love to hate and public servants whose paying jobs they resent. “American Pie” is gone. “America First” has arrived. The talking heads decrying reduced R&D funding cannot save it ,nor can philanthropy.  The folks in charge have pushed their rhetorical peas around the budget plate for years but now must face the music. The R&D community itself can save itself but only if everyone commits to doing so. We have have watched basic science be flat-funded for a decade. But as NC State researcher Absanei Rabei testified this week unless we increase its funding we will become a scientific “third world country” (see webcast below) as science progress and its next generation researchers move elsewhere. Dr Rabei not only spoke for all of us in Congress she spoke to all of us who leave policy and politics to others. Her testimony has now become more relevant.

At  a congressional hearing held last week, a distinguished group of research scientists diplomatically voiced their frustration at the foreboding consequences of flat-funding basic science while other countries eagerly incentivize it. The bipartisan concern of obviously busy committee members was refreshing. But unless their concerns can be converted into action U.S. research universities will dwindle down into the favored few whose innovation ecosystems are robust. The witnesses explained how one federal grant following four separate applications now requires ten. Scientists are spending more time writing than teaching and investigating. Even when they are obtained grants are subjected to interrupted funding “stop and start” except most never start again because its curiosity-driven drivers have moved-on; first to other projects, then to other research universities and now to other countries.

Dr. James Tour of Rice University discussed graphene, the strongest material known to man. Its patent growth in 2015 topped the cumulative patent pool of its ten related technology groups. Its future value has drawn the U.S. into a virtual nanotechnology “space race” that we are losing to China as foreigners cruise our campuses recruiting our best and brightest students and researchers. Keith Murphy, President and CEO of Organovo Inc. explained how 3D tissue models are accelerating biopharma innovation in three essential ways; by making them safe and speeding-up discovery and clinical testing of new and competing drugs lowering costs and saving lives, by modeling known diseases to discover cures more quickly, and by developing regenerative medicine that one day will restore failing human organs.

All the distinguished witnesses were persuasive in their arguments for more federal R&D support. They of course were as unaware of what was coming later in the week. And so are most of us.  Basic science funding is an investment in the future at a time when present demands are pointing to its end. And unless all of us get involved in that politics we will face the Hobson’s choice of moving to China or becoming a highly-educated barista here. For all of us the fight for every dollar has begun.

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