Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MIT
Illustration: Christine Daniloff/MIT

In a new report released Monday, MIT researchers examine how a decrease in basic research funding is creating an innovation deficit in the US—and may be driving scientific talent overseas.

The report, titled “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a US Innovation Deficit,” notes that some of the world’s most important technologies came from basic science research. The report identifies 15 current fields of study that, in spite of having great national importance, are suffering due to a lack of funding, including neurodegenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s, cybersecurity, infectious disease, and robotics.

Science funding in the US is “the lowest it has been since the Second World War as a fraction of the federal budget,” says Marc Kastner, the Donner Professor of Physics and president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance. The federal budget for research has fallen from around 10% in 1968, to under 4% in 2015. According to Kastner, who chaired the committee that wrote the report, “This really threatens America’s future.”

Meanwhile, science spending is increasing in other countries, leading to notable achievements. Among the scientific highlights of 2014: the European Space Agency landed the first spacecraft on a comet, and Chinese researchers unveiled the world’s fastest supercomputer.

In many cases, scientific advances held back for lack of funding could save lives. “The comparison between Alzheimer’s disease and cancer is sobering,” notes Andrew Lo, the Charles E. and Susan T. Harris Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in a recent MIT News story on DC innovation report. “Between January 2012 and March 2015, the [Food and Drug Administration] approved 27 new cancer drugs, two of which target breast cancer, an affliction that affects 2.9 million women in the US. In contrast, no new Alzheimer’s drugs have been approved in more than a decade, despite the fact that more than 5 million Americans suffer from this disease.”

Elsewhere in the report, Chris Kaiser, the Amgen Professor of Biology, writes that drug-resistant bacteria infect at least two million people in the US every year, with growing fatalities. Without investment to support the development of new vaccines and antibiotics, he warns, “the threat to US public health a decade from now may well look very challenging.”

Balancing the challenges outlined in the report, the authors note that the benefits if we succeed in expanding basic research could lead to an innovation dividend that enhances the economy, improves human lives, and give the US a strategic boost—outcomes that the authors say are “truly inspiring.”

Download “The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a US Innovation Deficit“.

Read additional coverage of the report at MIT News Innovation deficit report 2015 and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

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