Opinion

Americans Deserve Effective Science Funding

Rep. Lamar Smith Chairman, House Science Space, and Technology Committee
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There’s a growing worry that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us. Our economic strength and national security depends on technological leadership.  Since the 1940s, America has led the World in research and development (R&D) spending. But our crucial technological edge isn’t guaranteed.  Experts now project the U.S. will fall behind China in R&D spending in about ten years.

Five years after the Obama administration announced the end of the recession, unemployment remains at historically high levels, including nearly 3.5 million long-term unemployed and millions of recent college graduates who are jobless. Our gross domestic product (GDP) fell almost three percent in the first quarter of this year, which makes this the worst GDP report in five years.

China now operates the world’s fastest supercomputer. American astronauts rely on Russia to transport them to and from the International Space Station. High-energy physicists look to research conducted in Europe over research conducted in America.  And we also risk losing our lead in other areas such as nano-technology, the health sciences, and lasers.  This is the wrong direction for our country’s future.

We can’t have innovation without research and development. Efficient and effective investments in research and development (R&D) can curb this trend. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is leading our country toward a future in which new technology-driven businesses and jobs will be created elsewhere. The president’s science advisor says that America should get used to being second (or third) in R&D, conceding, “We can’t expect to be number one in everything indefinitely.”

We must re-direct public investments in research to the areas that boost economic growth and job creation:  biology, computer science, mathematics and engineering. Smart use of taxpayer dollars geared toward R&D will help fuel the economy, create jobs and lead to new technologies that benefit Americans’ daily lives. The investments in R&D today will lead us to the innovative technologies and ideas of tomorrow.

The White House budget cuts funds for research in the medical and physical sciences and instead increases spending for social and political science studies. The National Science Foundation (NSF), a critically important outlet for taxpayer-supported basic research, has spent millions of taxpayer dollars in recent years on frivolous and expensive projects such as “The Great Immensity,” a climate change musical that closed after three weeks, and “Re-live Prom Night,” an online game.

When taxpayer money is spent on frivolous musicals, there is less money to support scientific research that can yield technological breakthroughs and opportunities for economic growth. I and others in Congress have asked repeatedly for information about many questionable grants, but the NSF refuses to provide answers.

Earlier this summer, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which I chair, passed the Frontiers in Innovation, Research, Science and Technology Act, or FIRST Act.  Our bill prioritizes public investments in high quality research in the so-called “hard sciences.” In sum, our legislation will enable America to remain “FIRST” in crucial areas of science and research.

The FIRST Act also requires the National Science Foundation to be accountable for its actions. Americans deserve to know what federal science agencies are doing. Federal sciences agencies should be accountable to the American taxpayer for their funding decisions. They should explain why grants that receive taxpayer funding are important and have the potential to benefit the national interest. It’s not the government’s money; it’s the people’s money.

Continuing public support for important, high quality scientific research is essential to America’s future economic and national security. But with limited funding, we must prioritize.  Americans are right to question why NSF chooses to fund studies of animal pictures in National Geographic instead of projects that could help our wounded warriors or save lives or create jobs.

Congress has a responsibility to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and are focused on national priorities. We can still be that great nation that the revolutionaries fought to establish over 200 years ago. Smart investments in R&D will ensure that we will remain an extraordinary nation for years to come.

Congressman Lamar Smith represents the 21st Congressional District of Texas.