NEW YORK (Reuters) - Warning of an “innovation deficit,” scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology say declining government spending on basic research is holding back potentially life-saving advances in 15 fields, from robotics and fusion energy to Alzheimer’s disease and agriculture.
Science funding is “the lowest it has been since the Second World War as a fraction of the federal budget,” said MIT physicist Marc Kastner, who led the committee that wrote “The Future Postponed” report, issued on Monday. “This really threatens America’s future.”
The report lands at a time when federal spending on research has become unusually politicized.
Cuts mandated by the White House’s and Congress’s failure to reach agreement on reducing the federal deficit have chipped away at the budgets of the National Institutes of Health and other science agencies; legislation on research spending is tied up in debates over, among other things, climate change.
Federal spending on research as a share of total government outlays has fallen from nearly 10 percent in 1968, during the space program, to 3 percent in 2015. As a share of gross domestic product, it has dropped from 0.6 percent in 1976 to just under 0.4 percent.
The pullback comes as other countries are increasing science spending, scoring achievements that leave the U.S. in the dust. The European Space Agency landed the first spacecraft on a comet, and China developed the world’s fastest supercomputer, both in 2014.
Among the areas of research that are languishing, said the MIT report, are new drugs to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Drug companies see little profit potential in antibiotics, leaving government as the funder of last resort.
Other areas ripe for breakthroughs include engineering viruses to identify and destroy cancer cells; quantum computing (where China is investing heavily) to improve speed and cybersecurity; and artificial photosynthesis to boost food production.
The report does not include price tags for any of this, and the authors do not plan to push policymakers for any specific legislation, Kastner said. Experts said that would limit its impact.
“It’s fine to talk about research opportunities,” said Michael Lubell, director of public affairs at the American Physical Society. “But the report is long on identifying needs and short on identifying policy that will get us there.”
Asked what it might take to reverse the decline in federal support for science, Kastner said, “I wish I knew the answer.”
Reporting by Sharon Begley, Editing by Franklin Paul