In today’s massively technical world, it’s hard to get away from devices that beep and boop at you, nominally making your life easier. From your cell phone to Alexa, we depend on technologies that not long ago were merely pipe dreams. So where did that technology come from?
Well, the more recent developments came from companies trying to make money in a competitive market, but if you look a bit deeper into the past, you’ll find that many, if not most, of them came from the work of scientists working under publicly-funded federal grants.
One could start with the extraordinary report entitled “Science – The Endless Frontier,” written by Vannevar Bush in 1945. It was a pivotal document that shaped early federal science funding policy and launched the term “basic research” into the public sphere. As the message of his report was accepted by federal lawmakers, they created the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950.
Policy makers and scientists debated the merits of funding what one might call “basic science,” which is curiosity-based inquiry, versus a more focused approach of federally funding directed research into areas that would direct benefit society. For instance, James Conant, noted chemist and then president of Harvard University said in a 1945 letter to the editor in the New York Times that “There is only one proved method of assisting the advancement of pure science—that of picking men of genius, backing them heavily and leaving them to direct themselves.” One might excuse the sexist language of the time, but he was definitely advocating for a specific approach to funding science. However, his view was not the only one.
The conversation continued until 1968, when Congressional action directed the NSF to take responsibility for supporting applied research. Since then, the federal government has funded both basic and applied research.
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It would be reasonable to ask what sort of return on investment has been realized for this scientific support. The return is literally staggering. Here are some examples.
Funding for the NSF has brought us Google, which began from the work of two students working at Stanford University. Google now employs 135,000 individuals and has an annual gross revenue of over 181 billion dollars in 2020. This is just one success story out of the many areas of research funded by the NSF. They have had an incalculable impact on advanced electronics, computing, digital communications, environmental resource management, lasers, advanced manufacturing, clean energy, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and higher education.
Another federally funded enterprise is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which has been instrumental in huge returns for society. While many of their projects are classified, for instance stealth technology for military aircraft and advanced radar and threat detection instrumentation, DARPA is responsible for the creation of the internet, GPS, and such voice recognition technologies as Alexa and Siri. The internet is perhaps the most monetarily impactful innovation in a century. Nearly five billion people use the internet, with U.S. annual ecommerce alone exceeding a whopping four trillion dollars. Online spending in 2020 was about 20% of all retail spending. It is impossible to overestimate the impact that the internet has had on all societies around the world.
The Human Genome Project, funded by the public from 1990 through 2003 by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has realized incredible returns on investment. With a better understanding of genetic markers, doctors and health professionals are able to tailor medical treatments for individuals. And the NIH played a pivotal role in the international Covid response. The American biotechnology industry, which wouldn’t exist without startup funds from the federal government, now employs nearly 300,000 individuals, with over 2,500 businesses and a market size in 2020 of over a hundred billion dollars.
Another example is the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, which is funding many things, for example investigations into high temperature superconductors, which have the potential to lead to new designs of fusion reactors. A working fusion reactor, combined with high temperature superconductors, would revolutionize the American power grid.
It’s important that federal funding of science continues. Currently, United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 has passed the U.S. Senate, and is now waiting House action. This bill is focused on electronic chip development and is explicitly aimed at competing with other electronic superpowers, most notably China.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (NY-D) described the importance of this bill in its impact on science and society “Today’s Senate passage of the bipartisan U.S. Innovation and Competition Act moves forward historic legislation to invest in science, technology, and U.S. manufacturing that will shore up critical industries like semiconductors, artificial intelligence, advanced communications like 5G, quantum computing, biotechnology, and advanced energy.”
These are not the only technologies that the U.S. government currently funds, but they are certainly a good laundry list of strategic initiatives. Artificial intelligence will revolutionize self-driving cars, eventually saving lives due to reduced automobile accidents, and freeing up driving time to harried commuters. The field of quantum computing is a nascent one, but it has the capability to revolutionize cryptography, both at the national level, and causing credit card companies to rethink how they encrypt their communications with retailers. Biotechnology has already been mentioned, but there is no question that further support will lead to more life-saving measures.
And, of course, advanced energy research is crucial to the future of humanity. Mankind needs energy to flourish and our current carbon-based energy industry is damaging the planet. Research into solar energy, more efficient cars, safe nuclear energy, and a myriad of new technologies will give society the energy it needs, save the planet, and will result in many jobs to replace those lost from the traditional energy industry.
For so many of society’s problems, it is science that will save us. It is imperative that America not lose sight of that and continue to fund scientific research. Let us not lose our way as we travel into a future in which science innovation makes life better for all of us.