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Save the tiger: The R in R&D

Basic research is a risky business, but it is one of the better things of which humans are capable.

The ultimate goal of research and development is to produce new or improved products. To stay competitive, companies allocate a portion of their resources to R&D. That portion is typically considerable for startup and high-technology firms.

For example, the iPhone arguably propelled Apple to become the largest company in the world by market capitalization. Governments also support R&D for such purposes as better crop yield, medical advances, weaponry, space exploration, energy resources, and clean environment. As Congress and the President face another short-term squabble over raising the Federal debt limit, I felt compelled to scan the horizon.

The R in R&D is broadly divided into applied research and basic research. The latter is also called fundamental, pure, or curiosity research. Basic research improves our understanding of the natural world, but it rarely pays immediate benefits, and therefore is supported mostly by taxpayers. In the long term, however, basic research provides the foundation for applied research and for developing commercial products.

As a rule of thumb, if the development of a prototype costs $100, then applied research costs $10 and pure research costs a meager $1. That modest cost comes at a price: pure research does not often transition to a product, and spectacular long-term successes are not the norm. Basic research, then, is a risky business, but it is one of the better things of which humans are capable.

A distinguishing characteristic of basic research is its ability to open new frontiers in targeted/translational/applied research. Examples abound: instead of developing a better iron lung, a polio vaccine was discovered; a mold that repelled bacteria led to penicillin; molecules’ behavior during chemical reactions resulted in the omnipresent laser; the Internet was a side effect of a Department of Defense’s project to develop networks that could survive a nuclear attack; and solving a mathematical riddle metamorphosed into Google. Fundamental research propelled the US to the moon, sequenced the human genome, created global positioning systems, enabled satellite radio and television, and produced magnetic resonance imaging.

In 2011, the US invested $405.3 billion in R&D, more than any other country in the world. But as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), the US takes sixth place after Israel, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, and Finland. The situation is more ominous when it comes to the R portion of R&D, particularly the share of basic research. Major events such as WWII, the Cold War, the space race, the war on cancer, air and water pollution, and the energy crisis drove investment in pure research.

Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his leading role in the 1973 movie Save the Tiger. Lemmon plays Harry Stoner, an executive at a failing apparel factory who struggles both with the complexities of contemporary life and with avoiding financial ruin. CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

Jack Lemmon won an Oscar for his leading role in the 1973 movie Save the Tiger. Lemmon plays Harry Stoner, an executive at a failing apparel factory who struggles both with the complexities of contemporary life and with avoiding financial ruin. CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

In the late 1970s, President Carter attempted to foster the same climate for curiosity research as President Kennedy the early 1960s. JFK’s 25 May 1961 declaration that the US should set a goal to land a man on the moon and return him safely to earth by the end of the decade did succeed. But Jimmy Carter’s 7 November 1979 Energy Security Corporation and Synthetic Fuels Program did not. In both cases, basic research was projected to be a significant portion of the R&D programs. Today, however, federal expenditures in basic science as a share of the US economy (0.82%) are at the lowest level in over fifty years.

Even in the midst of sequestration, budget deficit, bloating national debt, and many other severe budget strains, de-investment in long-term fundamental research is shortsighted and outright dangerous to the nation’s future health, prosperity, and security. Such de-investment is tantamount to a farmer eating a good portion of the seeds set aside for the next planting season. The tiger of R&D needs to be saved.

In 1945 Vannevar Bush issued the report “Science: The Endless Frontiers,” which was a blueprint for generous government investment in basic research for generations to come. Sixty-eight years later, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), in cooperation with fifteen partner societies concerned with pure research, issued the report “Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity.” The contrast between the two reports could not be starker.

In commissioning Bush’s report, President Roosevelt wrote on 17 November 1944, “New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged [WWII] we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.” Basic research flourished during the following three decades, and the United States became a Mecca for scientists from abroad, several of whom went on to become Nobel laureates.

By contrast, we have the results of the 2013 ASBMB report, which surveyed 3700 scientists from all fifty states. Despite spending far more time writing research proposals, a significant majority of scientists are receiving less federal support than they were a mere three years ago. An eye-opening eighteen percent of respondents said they were considering continuing their careers in other countries. Reverse immigration is upon us!

What causes the lessened enthusiasm for curiosity research? Budget strains, including huge interest payment on the debt and non-discretionary spending, a gridlocked Congress, a prevailing culture of instant gratification, and shortsightedness lead a long list of reasons. Long-term thinking is no longer part of our vernacular. A typical corporate chief executive has her eyes on the next fiscal quarter; a member of the House of Representatives is elected for a two-year term; a president presides for four years; a senator enjoys a comparatively lengthy six-year term. But even a six-year cycle is not long term, which is measured in a generation or a lifetime.

In the legislative branch, several members of the congressional committees that oversee science spending do not believe in either the theory of evolution or the big bang theory. Why then spend an additional dime developing a vaccine for the ever-evolving AIDS virus, or operating a particle accelerator/smasher?

There are exceptions of course, but those are few and far between. Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Manhattan Project, and John F. Kennedy envisioned the moon landing. Neither of these two exceptional leaders lived to see the fruits of their visions. Now more than ever, our nation needs more visionary leaders of that caliber. The executive and legislative branches certainly need to work together to solve today’s and tomorrow’s problems, but also to plant seeds sufficient to figuratively feed future generations.

Finally, no one should believe the apocryphal statements falsely attributed to the commissioner of patents under either President Lincoln or President McKinley: “Opportunity is dead! All possible inventions have been invented. All great discoveries have been made.” Science and technology will remain endless frontiers, as long as Homo sapiens are on this or some other planet. If American exceptionalism doesn’t lead the charge, others are eager to fill the void.

Mohamed Gad-el-Hak is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Contact him at


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