By Jerry Balentine
Amidst ongoing budget brinkmanship in Washington, House and Senate panels have proposed significant cuts in federal funding for basic scientific research. That would be a grave mistake for our nation’s long-term economic success.
President Biden’s 2024 budget proposal maintained the current funding level for the National Institutes of Health and proposed a small boost for the National Science Foundation. Yet under recent congressional proposals, NIH funding would be significantly reduced — and NSF funding will fall to its lowest level in more than 30 years.
Far from reducing the debt burden, cuts to federal funding contribute to it by diminishing the fund of new knowledge that drives economic growth.
The NIH and NSF are the pillars of federal support for academic research. The bulk of their budgets each year goes to grants for basic research, on which the federal government spent $101 billion in 2018 across all agencies. In 2021, the federal government funded 40% of basic research in the United States.
Such basic research makes up a tiny fraction of the federal budget. Yet numerous economists have shown that spending in this area pays off several times over in sustained economic growth.
Proposed cuts would have far-reaching consequences for the work of more than 300,000 researchers across the country. And as funding dries up, potential breakthroughs will slip out of reach.
From cell phones to the internet, 3D printing to CRISPR gene-editing, countless major innovations can be traced to basic research supported by the federal government. A grant to Stanford University graduate students, for example, yielded the search engine prototype that became Google.
Nobody knew where those research projects would lead when they were approved for federal funding. All that was in the future. We can already anticipate future solutions to Alzheimer’s disease. Even more significant is what we can’t yet imagine.
At my own institution, New York Institute of Technology, our researchers are testing targeted cancer therapies and looking for the causes of brain disorders like autism. Not all of the experiments underway at U.S. institutions will pan out as hoped. But some will lead to breakthroughs in global health crises like antibiotic resistance, and others will solve problems we haven’t yet foreseen
We can’t afford to lose these potential advances. In fact, “More than 50% of U.S. economic growth since World War II has come from science and technology,” according to the NIH.
The cuts Congress proposed earlier this year in non-defense research and development spending — $17 billion in a House proposal and $10 billion in the Senate — stand in sharp contrast to the approach of economic competitors like Germany, Japan, and South Korea. According to the most recent data, those countries already spend a higher percentage of gross domestic product on scientific research than does the United States.
Funding for basic research is not a luxury item in the federal budget. It’s the cornerstone of our future prosperity.
Jerry Balentine, D.O., is provost and executive vice president at New York Institute of Technology. This piece originally ran in The Hill.