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Future Society

MIT Professor Gives A Dire Warning to the U.S. About Funding Science

“We may wake up to find the next generation of technologies, and industries are being produced elsewhere.”

Abby NormanJune 29th 2017

The Miracle Machine

They say there’s no alternative to hard work, but most researchers probably wouldn’t turn down the opportunity for more collaborative research that’s well-funded. That’s the philosophy behind what the Broad Institute at MIT calls the Miracle Machine. The Miracle Machine produces amazing advances in science and technology as a result of federal support an funding for the public and private sectors of the research community. However, as a video narrated by Broad Institute director Eric Lander explains, one of America’s greatest assets is “falling into disrepair.”

Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates retweeted Lander’s post linking to the video, echoing some of its major points. One of which is that research can do wonders for the “economy, health, energy, and defense” of the United States — or any nation for that matter.

— Bill Gates (@BillGates) June 28, 2017

Along with Gates, there are others working to remind us of the importance of investing in research. Among them is author and professor Robbert Dijkgraaf, who believes that “curiosity-driven basic research” is the foundation not only for our physical infrastructure but of our knowledge infrastructure. Federal investment in research and development (R&D) support is directly traceable to several major technological advances that have completely transformed our lives.

One of America’s greatest assets is “falling into disrepair.”

It would do those who do not see the investment in research as worthy to remember that it was a single $4.5 million National Science Foundation investment that made the Google search algorithm possible.

Will the U.S. Lag Behind?

Unfortunately, federal support for research has been dwindling. Over the past decade, funding for a number of research institutions has been on the decline, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which has lost 25 percent of its budget over the past 13 years. The most recent budget proposed by the U.S. Congress wouldn’t do much to improve those numbers, either.

The U.S. federal budget for R&D was at its peak in 1964, when it was 1.92 percent of the GDP. Today, it’s less than 0.8 percent. It could be argued that even more so than in the 1960s — a decade during which we put a man on the Moon and made incredible strides in the field of medicine — we are now, once again, on the precipice of major scientific and technological achievements. Many of which may be found as we graple with the challenges posed by climate changefood insecuritywater quality issues, and epidemics of disease.

“We may wake up to find the next generation of technologies, and industries […] are being produced elsewhere.”

Our interest in and determination to address these problems has not waned, but in the absence of financial support, innovation is stifled. Such a decline in federal funding will have a ripple effect across many industries, and could effectively knock the U.S. down a few pegs we’ve worked hard, for generations, to ascend to.

As Lander points out, “We may wake up to find the next generation of technologies, and industries […] are being produced elsewhere.” With Europe, China, Dubai, and other nations investing more in scientific research rather than less, it isn’t a stretch to think that the U.S. could fall behind at a time when we are otherwise perfectly positioned to be a leader in solving these global struggles.

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