This OpEd (free link) by Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (a reasonably influential conservative think tank — Newt Gingrich is also a fellow), ran today in Roll Call (sub req’d), “the Newspaper of Capitol Hill.” It’s a strong defense of federal support of basic research that cites DARPA’s declining support for university computer science research as one of the flawed policy decisions that need correcting to preserve our future competitiveness. Here’s a snippet:
But I am growing increasingly alarmed, less because of the dynamism in Asia and more because of our blindness and obtuseness when it comes to our crown jewel: our overwhelming lead in basic research and our position as home to the best scientists in the world.
Basic research is the real building block of economic growth, and here we have had the franchise; just look at the number of Nobel Prize winners from the United States compared to the rest of the world combined. Our academic institutions and research labs have been magnets attracting, and often keeping, the best and the brightest. Our academic openness and our culture of freedom have encouraged good research and challenges to orthodoxy. Our politicians have recognized that most basic research has to be funded by the government because there is scant short-term economic benefit for most businesses to do it themselves.
But now, in a variety of ways, we are frittering away this asset, and for no good reason. Start with the federal budget. Basic research has been concentrated in a few key institutions: the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency at the Pentagon. After a series of pledges to double the NIH budget and then keep it on a growth path, NIH has stagnated. Budget growth for next year is one-half of 1 percent, which will be below inflation for the first time since the 1980s, at a time when the need for more biomedical research is obvious.
The NSF budget is slated to grow by 2 percent, leaving it $3 billion below the funding level Congress promised in 2002. At NIST, the Bush administration is trying to eliminate the Advanced Technology Program and to slash the Manufacturing Extension Partnership by 57 percent. At DARPA, which originated the Internet but where computer science research has been flat for several years, the money going to university researchers has fallen precipitously, along with a larger focus on applied research for the here and now.
It is gut check time. The foolish fiscal policies that keep big entitlements off the table, wont consider revenues along with spending, and have turned the one-sixth of the budget that is discretionary into a vicious, zero-sum game, are truly eating our seed corn in this critical area. Somebody needs to get the White House to wake up, and Congress to understand what it is mindlessly doing.