It’s no secret that industry and federal spending on R&D has taken a hit over the past several year, and a new high-level report warns that huge cuts in state allocations to public research universities will take an even greater toll on the nation’s competitiveness in science and technology.
Universities perform more than half of all basic research in America, and public research universities account for 60 percent of the $54.9 billion spent annually on science and engineering R&D, which spins off more than 400 companies per year, 2,600 technology licenses, and 2,600 patents.
But the National Science Board (NSB) the governing panel of the National Science Foundation (NSF), reports that 43 of the 50 states have cut support for public research universities over the last decade—10 of them by between 30 percent (California) and 48 percent (Colorado)—even as enrollment and operating costs have increased, spreading thin the amount of funds available for research.
“The board is concerned with the continued ability of these institutions to provide affordable, quality education and training to a broad range of students, conduct the basic science and engineering research that leads to innovations, and perform their public service missions,” says the report, Diminishing Funding and Rising Expectations.
The NSF has a direct stake in this. Last year it launched a program called Innovation Corps, or I-Corps, to transform science and engineering research into products.
“If you take away the basic research, where do you get the retina display on the iPad, or the Internet, or GPS?” says Kelvin Droegemeier, vice chairman of the science board and vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma. “These moments of discovery can never be predicted, but it all starts with basic research, and that’s what universities do.”
State appropriations as a percentage of public research universities’ revenue fell from an average of 38 percent to 23 percent between 1992 and 2010. This comes even as federal funding—which pays for about three-quarters of university research funding—has flattened out, industry spending (which covers another 10 percent) has declined, and the cost of doing research has gone up.
“You’re getting squeezed in many different ways,” Droegemeier says. But “somehow the bills still have to get paid. So that’s a real challenge.”
The ramifications of this go far beyond the lab. While American research spending sputters, R&D spending in China has soared by 23 percent, and it’s increased by double digits in other competitor economies.
“The more they gain and the less we continue to advance, the narrower that gap becomes,” Droegemeier says. Meanwhile, he says, “We tend to take much shorter-term looks at these things. We tend to look quarter to quarter or year to year. If we start harming the seed corn and cutting back on the basic research, the impact isn’t going to be felt immediately, but down the road.”
State cuts to universities could also affect the number of scientists and engineers produced. “Universities educate the next generation of scientists and engineers to do the basic research,” Doregemeier says. “That’s where it all starts.
Part of the challenge for universities is that they can’t yet point to a specific effect of all this. “So far, we’ve been able to make it all work somehow,” Droegemeier says. “We get a dollar from here and a dollar from there and leverage it 10 different ways. The question is, at what point can we no longer do that?”
The outlook for reversing this trend is grim. Higher education is competing for state funding with fast-rising costs for Medicaid and other mandatory programs. Stagnant federal spending comes against the backdrop of an election campaign that has largely focused on the need for even more austerity.
GOP challenger Mitt Romney says he would cut all nondiscretionary spending by five percent, though President Barack Obama has called for continued funding for research and has singled out basic science and research as an area that Romney’s plan would harm.
Whatever happens, “It could be fairly bleak or maybe fairly average news but we’re not expecting it to be great news,” says Todd Sherer, president of the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM) and associate vice president for research and director of technology transfer at Emory University. “Having all of these things happen at the same time is the reason it’s such a potentially concerning scenario. It’s not just one thing that’s going down, it’s everything.”
Sherer says, “You could argue in an economy where we’re worried about how we create jobs and we know that young companies need technology, money, and people, it would not be a good outcome for the country if the investment of federal research were to go down. When people talk about, well, maybe we ought to cut the investment in basic research, what we’re doing is trading off the future for the present.”