Why is federal support for university research so important?

With all of the efforts to cut the federal budget, research dollars to universities might seem a very low priority. They shouldn’t.

Basic research – that is, research that is designed to advance basic scientific ideas rather than to develop specific products – has long been of key importance in the development of really revolutionary new ideas and products. Early basic research on human cell biology, on electronics, or on radio waves has ended up producing genetic therapies, semiconductors and computers, or GPS systems. Those early scientific studies didn’t foresee these inventions, but this basic research allowed later researchers to start thinking about potential applications.

Basic research is what economists refer to as a “public good.” Without a clear idea of what may come from it, private investors and businesses usually don’t want to get involved. They are interested in the applications, but the applications don’t arise unless the basic research has been done.

That’s why the governments of more technologically advanced nations now support basic research, usually at universities or other research institutions. The U.S. got a head start on this, as the federal government funded university-based research earlier and at a higher level than many other nations. Unfortunately, the last two decades of federal budgets have whittled support for that R&D down to historically low levels.

In 1990, support for research exceeded 5 percent of the federal budget; today it is just 3.8 percent of the federal budget. This decline in federal support for research is occurring at a time when many of our competitor nations are working hard to raise their research investments. Countries like Dubai, Brazil, India and China are increasing their spending on science research. Even countries that are facing their own fiscal problems, like Germany and the UK, are still making it a priority to increase research funding.

American progress and economic prosperity depend on investment in research and innovation. Economic research suggests that between two-third and three-fourths of all U.S. economic growth since World War II is due to increases in productivity – typically the result of new products or new and more efficient processes for producing existing products. If federal support for basic research declines, our opportunities for economic growth through innovation will decline.

Sequestration is the latest set of cuts hitting basic research. Federal awards to UW dropped 10 percent between fiscal year 2012 and 2013. We anticipate continued negative impacts on our overall research portfolio and on many individual research programs. Across the country, institutions cite reductions in research staff, delayed projects, and inability to purchase needed research equipment. Forty-two percent of institutions state that sequestration cuts have already directly affected students through admission of fewer graduate students or loss of stipends.

We’ve put some money aside to try and bridge the research projects and research centers at UW that are being hit by sequestration. Through the office of the Vice-Chancellor for Research, we’re providing bridge funds to schools and colleges to help offset federal funding declines due to sequestration. But we can only provide interim support to those projects that have some hope of finding new sources of funds; we can’t replace the federal dollars on a long-term basis.

Federal research dollars are an investment in our nation’s economic future. Cutting these dollars in the short-run may seem easy, but the long-term effects are large and negative. The less basic research done in this country today, at places like UW-Madison, the less opportunities we will have to be on the front end of the next new wave of product development. In recent decades, U.S.-based scientists have led the computer revolution, as well as much of the revolution in health-related research. If we want to lead the next innovation revolution, we need public support for basic research.