Diminishing the innovation deficit


Much has been written about the national budget deficit, and for good reason. But America is facing another shortfall that’s just as serious: an innovation deficit.

As Congress returns to work and negotiates spending levels for the next two years, one priority should be at the top of their list: increased funding for biomedical research.

This is something Washington does really well. Ninety percent of the money supporting basic research in this country funnels through the National Institutes of Health, and many Americans live longer and stronger lives because of its work.

The impact is practical as well as moral. Federal grants boost the economy, create new jobs and products and reduce time lost to debilitating illness.

“The argument that biomedical research pays a generous return on investment is well-grounded,” says the Washington Post. “The research (that) NIH funds is precisely what we should demand from government.” As conservative columnist George Will wrote recently, NIH is “the federal government at its best.”

And yet in a profoundly misguided policy, NIH funding has stayed flat for a decade; factor in inflation, and purchasing power has actually declined. Moreover, the automatic spending cuts known as a “sequester” sliced another 5 percent from the budget last year.

As a result, only about 15 percent of all grant applications are now being approved, which is half the rate of a decade ago. Labs are closing, layoffs are mounting, graduate stipends and equipment purchases are declining. NIH director Francis Collins tells us that he lives in fear of turning away a scientist who might win the Nobel Prize someday.

Meanwhile, foreign competitors like China and Japan are boosting their outlays. According to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, America’s share of global spending for biomedical research and development dropped to 45 percent in 2012, down from 51 percent in 2007.

The research community got good news in December when Congress shelved the sequester and increased annual federal spending by $45 billion. But as lawmakers divide that slightly larger pie, competition for every dollar will still be fierce, and biomedical research needs all the friends it can get.

Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities, says it well: “As we cut, and then cut some more, and as our competitors overseas increase their investments in research and education, we create an innovation deficit that threatens America’s global leadership. This foolish policy must end.”

Yes it must. For one thing, scientific experiments take a long time and require a high tolerance for failure. There are not many tasks that government does better than private enterprise, but funding basic research is one of them. Even Will, an apostle of free markets, agrees that “in the private sector, where investors expect a quick turnaround, it is difficult to find dollars for a 10-year program.”

The widening “innovation deficit” also discourages young scientists who wonder whether they will have the resources in the future to build a career. We admit to a bias — we have relatives whose research depends heavily on NIH funding — but that also gives us a personal insight into the crisis.

We know Collins is correct when he says, “Many young scientists are on the verge of giving up, taking with them the talent needed to make tomorrow’s medical breakthroughs”. He cites a poll showing one of five American researchers is now considering a move to another country and adds, “That’s frightening.”

The problem is compounded by another incredibly stupid government policy: strict limits on visas for foreign-born researchers who studied at American universities but cannot get permission to stay and work here. Countries like Canada and Germany are wooing them ardently, deepening our “innovation deficit.”

“The biomedical community is living a paradox,” Collins asserts. Just as funding is drying up, medical breakthroughs are more promising than ever. New vaccines to treat AIDS and influenza are “poised for rapid progress,” he wrote recently in the Post. Brain research “could mean enormous advances” in therapies for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.

All this progress could be endangered by the fiscal shortsightedness that seems to have infected much of Congress. Not all government spending is equal. Yes, a sizeable chunk of it is wasteful and careless. But some of it is absolutely essential to America’s national interest.

Good investments turn profits and pay dividends. Funding biomedical research and closing the innovation deficit is just such an investment: the highest, best use of hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

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Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.