What if we could strengthen or weaken emotionally charged memories? Such a scientific breakthrough would have tremendous therapeutic implications, making happy memories more vivid for those who suffer from dementia or depression or wiping away the bad ones that trigger anxiety or post-traumatic stress syndrome. This isn’t science fiction. Just this year, researchers have discovered that by manipulating the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, they can tune memory strength in mice.
This remarkable research is a result of what made the United States a global leader in scientific innovation: It was funded at a research university by the federal government. Following World War II, our government forged a commitment to support the scientific research that has brought so many wonders to our lives. But today, our nation’s standing is threatened because Congress has for too long under-prioritized its investment in scientific research, allowing other countries to catch up to us and or even pass us in terms of the percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) devoted to research.
In fact, the U.S. now ranks 10th among nations in overall research and development spending as a percentage of our GDP, a precipitous slide from fourth place in 2000. The result? Well, a stark report by MIT recently detailed four of the most notable scientific highlights from 2014: the first landing on a comet, the discovery of a new fundamental particle, the development of the world’s fastest supercomputer and a surge in research on plant biology. Alarmingly, none of the achievements were U.S.-led endeavors, demonstrating “... a growing U.S. innovation deficit, attributable in part to declining public investment in research.”
This is not to say that U.S. researchers aren’t still doing incredible work. At Stony Brook University, where I am president, Distinguished Professor Lorna Role led the team that made the breakthrough discovery in memory tuning after receiving a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And other researchers throughout the nation are tackling issues like the Zika virus, climate change, cancer and other critical issues of the day with support from the federal government. But the level of support is not enough, and at a time when our tools to approach the biggest challenges facing society have never been better, we are failing to make the investment and drive the innovation that leads to economic growth and fundamental improvements in the human condition.
It’s not too late to reverse this trend. I was pleased that Congress took a step in the right direction when it passed the 2016 spending bill late last year. It increased the NIH budget 6.6 percent, or $2 billion, its largest percentage jump in 12 years. Other agencies including NASA and the National Science Foundation also received slight increases. Yet despite NIH’s big raise, adjusted for inflation, its budget has fallen 22 percent since the early 2000s, according to a Science analysis.
What we need is a focused, concerted effort to increase federal funding. Last fall, Stony Brook University was one of 300 leading organizations that signed the Innovation Imperative, a blueprint Congress should follow so our nation regains its standing as the global leader in innovation. These steps include:
● Renewing the federal commitment to scientific discovery by ending sequestration’s deep cuts and providing steady and sustained growth in funding of at least four percent for basic scientific research
● Making permanent a strengthened research and development tax credit to encourage more private sector investment in the U.S.
● Improving student achievement in science, technology, engineering and mathematics through increased funding of proven programs and incentive for recruitment and development of STEM teachers
● Reform U.S. visa policy to welcome and keep highly educated international professionals
Our nation remains the most dynamic and prosperous in the world. But much of our economic growth in the second half of the 20th century was fueled by the investments we made in scientific research and development. We’ve now watched that commitment falter for a generation, and the results are staggering. I’m hopeful our government won’t let the trend continue. If it does, opportunity and innovation, two principles that are intertwined with the founding of our great nation, could be threatened for decades to come.