Karen Hitchcock: Scientific Research - Is The U.S. Losing its Global Competitiveness?

Apr 3, 2014

On a number of occasions over the last couple of years, I have shared my concerns with you regarding the decreasing level of support provided by the federal government for research at our nation’s universities. Indeed, as reported in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, entitled “Strapped”, by Paul Basken and Paul Voosen, the budget of the National Institutes of Health hasn’t exceeded inflation for more than ten years. This lack of growth in the N.I.H., and other federal granting agencies, coupled with the major cuts related to the recent “sequestration” process, endangers this nation’s  research infrastructure and the productivity of our research scientists. To quote the authors, “Budgets are tighter than ever. In [a survey administered by the Chronicle], more than half of the researchers who had led a lab for more than six years said this year was the toughest” …. 62% had reduced lab staff, 78% had reduced the recruitment of graduate students and fellows and 47% had had to drop an area of inquiry that was central to the scientist’s research programs.

Reducing lab staff and discontinuing specific areas of research have been cited as reasonable approaches to constrained resources – temporary solutions easily reversed when additional resources are identified. Despite such arguments from members of Congress at the time of sequestration, nothing could be further from the truth. As a research scientist, I know personally the impact of losing an experienced laboratory assistant, one with intimate knowledge of the areas under investigation and the experimental protocols being utilized. Quite simply, years can be lost before such expertise can be recreated. A scientist quoted in the Chronicle article states that “It’s nearly impossible to start high quality science from a standstill. Continuity is key. Cut 2 percent of research grants, and it’ll take much more money to get that work back.”

Similarly, the momentum lost by suspending the investigation of a particular area of inquiry which was integral to the overall research plan in order to save money can lead to a diminution of the ultimate impact of any advances in knowledge that are made. You might, for instance, be able to demonstrate the efficacy of a new drug, but because of a reduced research program, may not be any closer to understanding the drug’s mechanism of action – an understanding which is essential to broadening the impact of this drug on other diseases.

As funding stagnates or decreases, such limitations in the scope of some of our nation’s research programs certainly have the potential to decrease the attractiveness of scientific research as a career choice for our young people, and to decrease, at the same time, our scientific global competitiveness. Indeed, the Chronicle survey showed that some 42% of the scientists questioned had advised their students “to pursue careers outside academe,” and 21% had advised their students “to pursue careers outside the U.S.” Obviously, such actions could lead to major shortfalls in our nation’s talent pool, and a major decrease in our global competitiveness across many areas of scientific research, areas of research which could have major impact on our economic well-being.

In the face of these realities, it is difficult to understand why our members of Congress do not see investment in research as a national priority. As stated in the Chronicle article, “it appears that the current [decrease in federal research funding] could weaken American university-based science for years to come.” In fact, faculty and students alike are looking outside the U.S. in order to pursue their research in environments which better appreciate the need for funding continuity and investment in novel approaches and innovative ideas.

Despite these very real concerns, the Chronicle article reported that a recent (2012) survey by the Pew Research Center showed that “only 38 percent of Americans feel science is getting too little funding.” Clearly, we in the field of scientific research have not been doing a good job of “telling the story” – of communicating the need for a robust, competitive U.S. presence across many areas of research. Be it in the area of cancer prevention and treatment, diabetes, autism, global warming, energy alternatives, and on and on, we cannot as a country afford to lose our global leadership; we cannot afford to lose our talented young people to countries more responsive to supporting their research careers. As described in the Chronicle article, cutting in half the research funding of a professor like Purdue University’s Dr. Mark Cushman, who has led the development of two potential cancer drugs now in clinical trials, is not the kind of message our young people need to hear as they decide where they will carry out their research … in the U.S. or elsewhere.

Yes, we need to “tell our story” better. We need to better inform our fellow citizens regarding the critical importance of scientific research to our nation’s future, and we need to inspire greater numbers of them to speak to their representatives in Washington regarding the need for increased support of scientific research. Until that kind of pressure is put on our representatives, the public policy dealing with federal support of research will not change, and funding levels will continue to stagnate or decrease. As a nation, we cannot afford to let that happen.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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