When we think of infrastructure, we tend to think of the physical facilities and systems required for a country and its economy to function and thrive—roads, bridges, tunnels, airports, and railways as President Donald Trump specified in his February 28 speech to Congress.
Maintaining our national infrastructure is crucial. Potholes and crumbling edifices clearly indicate that something needs fixing. But knowledge is infrastructure too. Science and technology are the basis of the modern economy and key to solving many serious environmental, social, and security challenges. Basic research, driven by curiosity, freedom, and imagination, provides the groundwork for all applied research and technology. And just as we have to break the endless cycle of temporary fixes to our transportation, long-term investments in knowledge are vital, especially nowadays when short-term objectives and results seem to capture the most attention and dollars.
Curiosity-driven basic research is known to bring truly revolutionary transformations, like the discovery of the genetic basis of life and medicine, and the rapid growth of computer-based intelligence. Einstein’s century-old theory of relativity is used every day in our GPS tracking devices. Perhaps the best U.S. government investment ever was the 4.5-million-dollar grant by the National Science Foundation that led to the Google search algorithm—a multiplier of more than a hundred thousand since the company is now estimated to be worth over $500 billion.
Basic research not only radically alters our deep understanding of the world, it also leads to new tools and techniques that spread throughout society, such as the world-wide web, originally developed by particle physicists to foster scientific collaboration. It trains the sharpest minds on the toughest challenges and its products are widely used by industry and society. No one can exclusively capture its rewards—it is a truly public good.
Like other major forms of transportation, the path from exploratory basic research to practical applications is not one-directional and linear, but rather complex and cyclic. Resultant technologies enable even more fundamental discoveries, such as quantum mechanics, which has led to computer chips and other inventions that are responsible for an estimated 30 percent of the U.S. gross national product.
The unintentional adversaries of basic research are short-term thinking and a demand for immediate results. In order to tap into the full potential of human intellect and imagination, we need to balance short-term expectations with long-term investment. Just as a financial expert would never recommend forgoing a retirement fund in order to enrich an already sufficient checking account, we need to advocate for a balanced portfolio of short-term and long-term research initiatives.
But driven by decreasing funding, against a background of economic uncertainty, global political turmoil, and ever-shortening time cycles, research criteria are becoming dangerously skewed towards short-term goals that may address more immediate problems, but miss out on the huge advances that human imagination can bring in the long term.
It is a worrisome trend that over the last decades both public and private support for basic research has declined. The postwar decades saw an unprecedented worldwide growth of science, including the creation of funding councils like the National Science Foundation and massive investments in research infrastructure. Recent decades have seen a marked retrenchment.
Steadily declining public funding is currently insufficient to keep up with the expanding role of the scientific enterprise in a modern knowledge-based society. The U.S. federal research and development budget, measured as a fraction of the gross domestic product, has steadily declined, from a high of 2.1 percent in 1964, at the height of the Cold War and the space race, to currently less than .8 percent. The budget for the National Institutes of Health, the largest supporter of medical research in the United States, has fallen by 25 percent over the past decade.
Governments are increasingly directing research funding to tackle important societal challenges, such as the transition to clean sustainable energy, battling climate change, and preventing worldwide epidemics, all within flat or decreasing budgets. As a consequence of the priorities and politics of the time, basic research and its budget are given short shrift.
It is a well-known human trait to focus on necessities—earmarking resources for immediate needs and short-term solutions—in periods of stress. But investing in basic research, just like saving for retirement, is a prerequisite for ensuring welfare, innovation, and societal progress that can’t be applied retroactively. Long-term investments in basic research are crucial and lead to an even higher goal: the world fundamentally benefits from embracing the scientific culture of accuracy, truth seeking, critical questioning and dialogue, healthy skepticism, respect for facts and uncertainties, and wonder at the richness of nature and the human spirit.