Wiretap allegations, travel bans and congressional gridlock have dominated recent news coverage, meaning that one critical statistic probably escaped the notice of most Americans. In March, data from the National Science Foundation showed that for the first time since World War II, the percentage of basic research funded by the federal government fell below 50 percent. While not plastered on the front pages of newspapers or trending on Twitter, that statistic represents a significant change in government policy over the last several years that will affect the daily lives of Americans and decrease the U.S.’s global leadership role.
To many, that change may seem unlikely. The dividends from science don’t flow directly into most people’s bank accounts, and research papers haven’t traditionally been seen as symbols of America’s power. However, without government-funded research, the U.S. today would be a drastically different country, lacking drivers of our economy, national prestige such as top research universities and everyday technologies like the microwave and internet.
When most people think about scientific research, they often think about big breakthroughs and developments, such as landing a man on the moon or discovering the polio vaccine. While those and other highly publicized stories represent the pinnacles of scientific achievement, they rest upon countless other studies produced by researchers. Those papers may not be headline-grabbing, but they form a collective body of scientific knowledge that enables scientists to conduct and publish further studies. When large breakthroughs occur, it is largely due to this continuous cycle of innovation and collaboration.
Before the 1940s, researchers seeking funding mainly relied on the private sector and philanthropy. That system worked well during periods of economic boom, but was devastating for scientists during economic crashes; some institutions lost over 60 percent of their funding during the Great Depression. World War II was the first time the U.S. saw large-scale government investments into science. Research during the war would lead to discoveries with that far outlasted the 1940s, including the discovery of chemotherapy and the mass production of penicillin. Postwar political leaders made basic research funding a priority, setting up agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation. Those organizations provide a steady flow of research grants that allow the U.S. to remain the world’s preeminent hub for research.
However, since 2000, government funding for research has plateaued as foreign wars and ballooning entitlement costs have taken spending priority. As research costs continue to grow and universities churn out postgraduate students, there is increased competition for less money. Today, the NIH approves just one in six grant applications, compared to one in three in 1990. Instead relieving pressure on scientific funding, the Trump administration decided to double down on cuts. In its first budget proposal, the administration recommended slashing 18 percent of the NIH’s budget, as well as large spending reductions for other research agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Department of Energy.
To the Trump administration, the cuts represent a new reality in government, in which agencies will have to “do more with less,” as stated by President Donald J. Trump in February. However, his senseless budget proposal slashes the very sectors of our government that already do “more with less.” Today, funding for scientific research composes only 1 percent of our budget. This is in stark contrast to the military and entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security that combine to form three-quarters of federal spending, and would be untouched or, in the case of the defense budget, increased by Trump’s proposals.
Fortunately, the ultimate power to draft the federal budget lies with Congress. However, while Congress has been willing to provide large amounts of money dedicated to specific projects, many members engage in the same fallacies mentioned earlier when judging whether to fund research. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) even releases annual reports attacking spending that he views as wasteful, including research into topics ranging from driverless cars to political parties in Pakistan. Political intrusions like those ignore the fundamental nature of science. While not every study will produce revolutionary results, scientific inquiry into obscure and far-ranging topics is essential for producing the groundbreaking developments that make front-page news.
Ultimately, if large cuts to basic research make it through the budget process, academics and bureaucrats won’t be the only ones to suffer. Every American depends on government funding, whether for life-saving cancer treatments, clean air and drinking water or even the microprocessor that powers their smartphone. The consequences of those cuts are impossible to fully predict, as science is by nature unpredictable. However, what is certain is that less U.S. spending will damage scientific progress and hurt our country, but help nations like China, which has bold plans to dramatically increase research its spending. China understands that while they may never be able to outgun America, they can replace us as the world’s center of innovation by attracting talent that we turn away.
Despite the alarmism of our current administration, the greatest threat to our superpower status comes not from outside our borders but from within. It exists in the form of a dangerously simplistic worldview that equates power solely with military strength while ignoring what has made our country so great to begin with. Considering that scientific research has driven as much as half of U.S. economic growth since World War II, narrowing this sliver of our budget would be would be a devastating mistake.
Andrew Kliewer is a College freshman from Dallas, Texas.