Vannever Bush Room at MIT

The “R” in R&D is falling short

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I’ll bet there isn’t one of you who doesn’t know that I’m a techie. I’ve been devoted to science and technology- and FACTS- since I was a tyke. I knew I’d be a ChemE by the time I was 8 and was just as certain I’d effect major changes to the field of dialysis. I’ve been lucky enough to dabble in water treatment, water reuse, air treatment, microbial conversion of hazardous materials, pharmaceutical development, medical instrumentation, genetic manipulation, food production…. OK. You get the idea.

Moreover, I am NOT a scientist. That is not my forte. I don’t do basic research. My capabilities are to extend a new scientific (or financial) discovery into practical application. That’s why I am a ChemE and not a chemist. (It’s also why I do management and finance- and not brain science or pure mathematics.)

I was lucky enough to be born after a major transformation was effected in the way the US operates. It was folks like Vannever Bush (I recall- with less than total fondness, grand lectures I attended in the Vannever Bush Hall at MIT [10-105; all MIT buildings are numbered!]) who convinced America to fund science in a big way.

Vannever Bush Room at MIT His Office of Scientific Research and Discovery has led to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and so much investment in science and technology via US governmental funding.

Now, 70 years later, I see our government shafting this concept. (NIH funding- in constant dollars- has dropped by 25% since Bush II, as just one small example.) Almost as effectively as the government is abandoning its constitutional duty to fund our infrastructure.  Make no mistake- funding scientific research is also a vital US Infrastructure Requirement.

US Government funding has paid off manifold in the past. Not just in the way our health care system has changed, but in national defense and energy production and delivery- and industries that were not even inklings way back when- biotechnology, computers, information science. If we keep funding basic science, it will ensure that we will be the global compass for all the new technologies of which we dream.

Dr. Vannever Bush understood that having the government fund basic research- with the private sector doing what it does best (the engineering and scale-up of these new findings) would drive the American economy to new heights. Private industry doesn’t do basic research because the time-frame for payback is too deep and the concepts are too far removed from commercialization. Top that off that basic research is too much of a crapshoot- it’s too unpredictable.

When the US funds basic research, though, it trains generations of scientists, engineers, and technologists. The historical funding has been on the order of 1% of the federal budget. And, the discoveries derived from these research dollars provide the fodder  which the entrepreneurs, Corporate America, and investors employ to churn out new products to drive our economy and employ our citizenry.

Consider a most recent “big” investment. The US spent nearly $ 4 billion on the Human Genome Project, the research that let us decode the human genetic code. The payback? Slightly more than $ 1 trillion in private industry economic activity. And, growing still.

Not a bad return. One I wish I had squirrelled away in my retirement account right now.Roy A. Ackerman, Ph.D., E.A.

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