Aside from Hillary Clinton’s brief mentions of the need to focus on developing technology and clean energy jobs and addressing climate change, science issues were absent from the first presidential debate.
Unfortunately, this is indicative of how things have gone throughout the 2016 campaign. Amid all the talk from our leading presidential candidates about how crucial this election is to our nation’s future, science education and research funding—issues directly tied to our economic standing in the world and to national security—have received scant attention from either of the two major candidates.
Researchers make life-changing discoveries daily. A Boston University engineer is developing a wearable bionic pancreas that could help millions of people with type 1 diabetes (thanks to National Institutes of Health support). National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers are figuring out how quickly the sun converts oil and gas facility emissions to ozone pollution that harms human health. A collaborative group of scientists, including those here at the University of Kansas-based Center for Remote Sensing of the Ice Sheets, discovered a vast ice sheet in Greenland was melting faster than believed, with implications for global sea level rise for decades to come.
These are successes—and there are thousands more to point to in fields ranging from biotech to medical research to clean energy. Without such advancement, we risk stagnation in all these areas, threatening our nation’s well-being and our international standing, while eroding our role as global leaders in innovation. But recent low levels of federal funding impede the pace of scientific discovery.
As chancellor of a public research university, my hope is that by Election Day the candidates will give us substantive plans that would prioritize science and the contributions it can make toward helping the United States stay on top.
A decades-long decline
Years of neglect and unstable funding pushed a 2005 National Academies commission led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine to recommend increased investments in research and innovation and enhancement of STEM education from elementary to graduate levels. Their seminal report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, was a wake-up call for policymakers that spurred new ideas and new legislation. Five years later, despite some progress, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine special report echoed many of Augustine’s findings and showed the United States lost even more ground. That trend continues unabated today.
Numerous statistics illustrate this decline. In 2014, the United States had slipped to 10th in research and development investment rankings. Although we still spend more than any other country on research, our relative investment has declined. If current trends persist, China will likely surpass the United States in percentage of GDP investment in R&D within eight years and will outpace U.S. research spending in a decade.
In 2009, for the first time, non-U.S. companies received more than half of the U.S. patents awarded. In high-tech exports—think aircraft, computers, pharmaceuticals—China bypassed the United States as the world leader in patents and is gaining ground as the second-leading publisher of biomedical research journal articles. While increased research and innovation in other countries partially account for some of this trend, many observers also point to real declines in U.S. productivity. For example, the United States approved 157 new drugs from 1996 to 1999, but only 74 from 2006 to 2009.
Prioritizing science means funding it
Despite its crucial role in driving economic growth, research and development in the STEM fields accounts for only a small portion of the federal budget—currently less than 4 percent. That’s down from nearly 12 percent in 1965, during the height of the Space Race.
The Association of American Universities and National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have called for sustained 4 percent annual increases in research funding for key federal agencies, including the NSF, DOE, NIH, NASA and the DOD. The ultimate goal should be a return to investing around 12 percent of the federal budget in research.
This type of aggressive and sustained growth in research funding provides a second benefit: It sends a signal that the U.S. is serious about holding on to its status as a leader in scientific and engineering innovation. More funding lays the groundwork for long-term stability in the field, especially as the next generation of scientists and engineers make their career-path choices.
Increasing investment and strengthening our pipeline of future scientists and engineers won’t matter, however, if we don’t translate their work into products and services that improve lives. Our next president should prioritize interdisciplinary research and connecting university research with the marketplace in a way that creates new products, technologies and services.
Future scientists must be trained
Uncertain funding opportunities discourage potential scientists and academic researchers—people think twice about signing on to careers that demand decades of training with no guarantee the necessary resources for conducting research will be waiting at the finish line. Adequate and sustained investment in research would address this problem. But another factor has played a major role in the research innovation gap we face: the inadequacy of our basic science and math education.
U.S. students have slipped to 27th in math and 20th in science in the ranking of 34 nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. To catch up will take time and investment.
Industry already feels the repercussions of this underinvestment in science and engineering. American manufacturers have voiced concern about a skills gap in the coming decade. They expect to have 3.5 million jobs to fill, but estimates suggest only about 1.5 million workers are prepared to step in for example with electrical and mechanical technical skills to maintain complex machines for production.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology has called for improved STEM education programs. Math intervention programs and expanded recruitment and training programs for STEM teachers can help. We still have a way to go, but steps like these and strengthening standards even on the K-12 level take us in the right direction. Federal leadership—and funding—can keep improving STEM education on the national agenda.
Eliminate inefficient regulation
Federal support for research is key. But there are also some obstacles posed by current federal regulations. The next president’s leadership could help clear away some of these well-intentioned but burdensome regulations that can hinder or undercut R&D efforts.
The next president should work with Congress to streamline and eliminate redundant regulations and reporting requirements that even the federal government has already identified as problematic. Studies have found around 40 percent of time faculty spend on research goes to administrative duties instead of the actual research.
We need to ensure that the most talented foreign-born, U.S.-educated individuals, especially in STEM fields, have the opportunity to become American citizens and contribute to our economy. In addition, with all the talk in this campaign about immigration policy, the candidates should expand their platforms to phase out the 7 percent cap per country that limits employment-based green cards. I’d argue to replace it with a first-come, first-served system for qualified highly skilled immigrants.
Other forms of regulation can also be costly. Politically motivated intrusions into research funding, such as the ban on federal support for gun violence research, mean we miss the opportunity to address major issues facing our society.
Gearing up for a new golden age of research
Trump and Clinton said little about science and engineering research in their first debate. But science and engineering issues are vital to our prosperity, our well-being, our status as a global leader, and our national security. My hope is that in the final weeks of the campaign, voters and media can somehow force the candidates to address these crucial issues—and in essence, determine whether we can avoid the “gathering storm.”