Kim: A Tale of Two Countries
By Yoo Jung Kim, Staff Columnist
Published on Friday, August 3, 2012
At the 104th meeting of the National Institutes of Health Advisory Committee to the Director on June 14, the NIH associate director for budget reported that the organization received about $30.9 billion for the 2012 fiscal year and that the NIH expected a flat budget for 2013. When asked how the overall budget compared to inflation, NIH Director Francis Collins reported that the NIH has been losing purchasing power every year since 2003 and currently faces a 20 percent decrease in relative research funding.
The next day, a Senate panel approved a $100-million boost to the NIH’s budget for the 2013 fiscal year. According to Science magazine, the 0.3 percent boost will bump the institute’s projected budget to a total of $30.7 billion. While $100 million isn’t exactly a paltry sum, the relatively small endowment left many disappointed. Overall, the White House revealed that the projected budget for science research in 2013 will total $64.0 billion, up $2.0 billion from last year, or a 3.3 percent increase.
Compare this number to China’s most recent allocation toward science: 228.5 billion yuan, or $36.1 billion. This 12.4 percent increase in funding from last year is evidence of China’s continued commitment to scientific research.
China is just second to the U.S. in the number of scientific papers published. Moreover, the strong financial support for science research in China is luring many Chinese researchers who previously relocated to America back to China. A recent study by Vivek Wadhwa from the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University demonstrated that only 10 percent of Chinese students studying in the United States planned to remain in the U.S. after graduation. More than half believed that the best job opportunities were in China, and about three out of four thought that the Chinese economy would only further improve in the near future.
This presents a stark contrast to the current outlook that many scientists have in the U.S. The proportion of science PhDs who gain academic tenure is in decline, as are success rates for government grants. For instance, the proportion of submitted grants accepted by the NIH funding agency dropped to a mere 18 percent in 2011, an all-time low and a 3 percent dip from 2010. In order to keep their labs afloat, principal investigators have to diversify their funding sources, spending more time writing grant proposals and less time on research.
The United States is in danger of losing its global edge in scientific research and development to China. While politicians are calling for a new “Sputnik moment” to revive commitment to the sciences, the current stagnation in scientific funding, including recent cuts to NASA’s budget, makes such a renaissance unlikely.
One thing is certain: To reinvigorate the nation’s scientific progress, the U.S. must support its pro-science rhetoric with hard cash. Government-funded scientific advances have contributed directly and indirectly to the United States’ economy, innovation, competitiveness and national self-esteem through the development of world-changing innovations such as the light bulb, the telegraph, computers, satellite radio, the microchip, GPS, the Internet, the barcode, the Polio vaccine, pharmaceuticals, and many more.
The United States should also invest in our scientists — that is, the workers of the future — to better compete globally. This funding must begin with our students. Currently, U.S. high school students rank below average on virtually every international achievement test. But interestingly, according to a 2010 American Association for the Advancement of Science presentation, 28 percent of American adults are “scientifically literate,” defined as the capacity to follow complex science issues — outscoring adults in most European nations. According to Jon Miller of Michigan State University, the higher rate of scientific literacy can be attributed to American undergraduate education, which, unlike that of our European counterparts, requires a year of general education, including science classes. Though seemingly counterintuitive, the U.S. ought to increase support for science education in college, where courses are taught by professors who have a vested interest in the continued development of their field.
To invest in innovation and the nation’s self-esteem on an international platform, the U.S. must place emphasis on scientific funding and education, lest we lose our edge in the increasingly competitive global economy.