Once again, members of the U.S. Congress are pounding on the National Science Foundation, demanding that the agency focus on “useful” research. While there is a rather large difference of opinion about what might be “useful” research, there is, I believe, a question of whether any NSF research should be immediately “useful,” especially since the U.S. corporate sector has moved away from funding basic research to a great degree. Various studies over the last five years show that in all fields corporate funding of basic research has dropped to one third the level it was thirty years ago, although total corporate R&D funding has remained comparatively constant in inflation-adjusted dollars. This finding includes the acquisition of start-ups, as well, meaning that even when the basic research done by star-up companies later acquired by large companies is included, overall basic research remains at one third the level of 30 years ago.
Obviously, there are exceptions, such as Google and Elon Musk, but those exceptions are far outweighed by the bulk of corporations, which are far more interested in short-term, incremental research that results in immediate product improvement or new products that don’t require significant development expenses.
At the same time, U.S. federal funding for research and development has fallen significantly over the past 50 years, from almost 10% of the budget in 1968 to around 3% in 2015.
The problem with focusing on “useful” research is that no one, literally no one, knows what basic research will turn out to be useful… or when. Einstein’s theories are absolutely necessary for today’s GPS systems, but it was seventy years or so after he postulated them before GPS systems came into wide use.
When Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier discovered CRISPR, the most powerful DNA editing technology ever discovered, described by the MIT Technology Review as “the biggest biotech discovery of the century,” they were studying the system that bacteria use to defend themselves against viruses, not looking for a world-transforming DNA editing tool, which is what it turned out to be.
Google, now a $250 billion corporation, actually got its start with an NSF grant to a research project.
Hunter Rawlings, president of the Association of American Universities, has been quoted as saying that “the iPhone depends on eight or nine basic technologies, none of which were invented by Apple. Those inventions were discovered at research universities or government laboratories, which were funded by the taxpayer.”
What’s troubling about all of this is that more and more basic research is being funded by governments other than the U.S., and that means that more bright young scientists go elsewhere, and that more and more of the basic research that underlies tomorrow’s technologies is going to come to U.S. corporations second-hand, if at all, and that some of them might also find yet another reason to move their operations and headquarters somewhere other than the United States.
In this world,for politicians, “useful” basic research translates into government-restricted research and far less future benefit for the U.S., a lesson not learned by the late Senator Proxmire a generation ago and still unlearned by senators and representatives today.