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MIT Committee: Decline in Basic Research Investment Threatens U.S. Innovation

April 30, 2015

Although the benefits of basic research are often misunderstood due to their lack of immediate payoff, a new report by the MIT Committee to Evaluate the Innovation Deficit finds that this research is of the utmost importance in sustaining U.S. economic competitiveness. In The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit, the authors, MIT faculty members from a variety of fields,  provide numerous examples of how basic research benefits have helped to shape and maintain U.S. economic power, as well as a number of tangible cases of under-exploited areas for future innovation. Given that recent notable scientific achievements, such as landing on a comet or the development of the world’s fastest supercomputer, were led by international competitors, the report urges for continued government role in spurring innovation and a long-term approach to viewing R&D activities. 

Examples of areas for basic research opportunity detailed in the report include Alzheimer’s disease, cybersecurity, quantum innovation technologies, fusion energy, catalysis, robotics, and batteries, among several others. Also included is a section on enabling better policy decisions, which suggests that insight from social and economic research can have significant impacts on public policy. In addition to learning more about their region and constituents, policymakers are also aided by research that helps them “design markets” in areas such as K-12 school matching or the auction of parts of the broadcast radio/TV spectrum.  The other sections similarly describe both examples of successes and areas for potential innovation.

Despite the importance of basic research, support for R&D at the federal level has continued to decline since peaking with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 stimulus package. Recent analysis from the National Science Foundation (NSF), which details 40 federally funded research and development centers (FFRDC), concludes that investments in FFRDCs and the basic research they conduct have also declined since 2010. The report notes that of the 40 FFRDC responses, 24 FFRDCs reported declines from fiscal year 2012 compared to FY 2013, with 17 reporting two straight years of decreased spending. In FY 2013, basic research activities accounted for 24.8 percent of total FFRDC R&D expenditures, a significant drop from 35.2 percent in 2012.

Ultimately, though its impact will oftentimes go under-recognized, basic research is a critical component of the United States’ innovation ecosystem. An increase in global competition, coupled with diminishing support for basic research in the U.S., could threaten American competitiveness. As a result, the MIT report notes, the potential benefits from expanding basic research should continue to drive U.S. inventiveness.