Opinion

Tackling the Innovation Deficit

By L. RAFAEL REIF
The long-term future of congressional support for research and development is being shaped right now, and the stakes are high. Those of us who see firsthand the power of scientific research can offer a simple message for U.S. policy makers: to help close the budget deficit, close the innovation deficit.
Last month, Congress passed a budget deal that eases some of the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration. For the next two years, discretionary spending will be cut less severely and indiscriminately than it has been since last March, when sequestration began.
This is good news for our nation’s research and development, since sequestration imposes cuts on all of the federal agencies that fund scientific research. The cuts set in March ranged from 5.1% to 7.3% and were scheduled to continue through 2021. Next month, it should become clearer what the gentler reductions under the new budget deal will be. Still, absent further legislation, in two years we’ll go back to the original sequestration plan.
That would be a mistake that would only compound a problem we already have: decades of declining investment in innovation. Federal R&D as a percentage of GDP — essentially, our societal commitment to research — has fallen from 1.3% in 1978 to 0.8% in 2013. Our competitors are going in the other direction.
Sequestration has hit Boston-area universities and hospitals hard: Massachusetts received $125 million less in federal funding for medical research in 2013 than it otherwise would have. Such cuts translate into lost jobs today and slow the process of innovation that produces future jobs.
Innovation is fueled by a long-time partnership between the federal government and the nation’s scientists and engineers. Since World War II, federal funding for science has led to important technological breakthroughs and contributed mightily to our national defense. Over the long term, as much as three-quarters of economic growth may be attributable to innovation and technological change.
This effect has shaped Greater Boston, particularly in recent years. For decades, this region has had great colleges, universities, and hospitals. But with today’s innovation economy, a place long admired for its educational excellence has branched out in exciting ways.
To see how federally funded research influences the future, consider three areas of innovation that now benefit greatly from sources other than the federal government, but were the downstream products of earlier federal funding of science and technology.
The first is online learning. A year and a half ago, MIT and Harvard launched edX, which offers online university courses to the world. This new platform for global learning is built on advances in computing that trace their roots to Defense Department research from the 1960s and 1970s that led to the Internet.
A second example comes from healthcare. One of the most important trends of our lifetime is the convergence of the life sciences with the engineering and physical sciences. It’s at the heart of the Ragon Institute, a collaboration of MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital. Engineers, mathematicians, and scientists are working with doctors to find a vaccine for the AIDS virus. The vaccines currently being developed would not be possible without long-time investment in research by the National Institutes of Health.
A third illustration is 3-D printing, a concept pioneered by MIT faculty members. The field developed rapidly from its beginnings in the 1980s and has changed the way big companies develop products. These technologies are now in the hands of home users and professionals alike. Researchers are even experimenting with ‘printing’ replacement human organs. How did it all begin? With funding from the National Science Foundation.
Greater Boston can be proud to serve as a model for the innovation economy — and as a reminder of what we could lose if we do not protect the public-private partnership that has made U.S. research the envy of the world.

L. Rafael Reif is president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an electrical engineer.

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