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posted: 5/6/2014 5:01 AM

Preserving our role as a nation of innovators

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  • U.S. Rep. Bill Foster

    U.S. Rep. Bill Foster

By Rep. Bill Foster
Guest Columnist

"This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper." T.S. Eliot wrote in The Hollow Men. It may not be quite so dramatic, but to those in our nation's science and research community, it rings all too true.

You may have heard of a recent scientific discovery, a result which has the potential to change the way we think about the beginning of the universe.

The BICEP2 team, a collaboration of 12 institutes -- including universities, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and NASA laboratories -- studied the first moments of the universe, at less than a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang. They found direct evidence that appears to verify inflation, a theory about the expansion that occurred during the birth of the Universe.

This discovery, made possible by federal investments in basic science, is on par with the historic discoveries of the heaviest known forms of matter using the giant particle physics experiments at Fermilab, or the recent Nobel Prize winning research at the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne. These have been globally recognized as some of the most important fundamental breakthroughs in science in our lifetimes, landmarks of American academic achievement that will live on in science textbooks forever.

In addition to fundamental scientific research, the majority of major technological breakthroughs in the last century -- including the Internet, GPS, passenger jet planes and medical imaging technology -- were driven by federally supported research. Our nation's ability to innovate is a cornerstone of our status as a world economic superpower.

In fact, since World War II, more than half of U.S. economic growth has been driven by science and technology.

Unfortunately, our position as a world leader in science and technology is at risk. Federal investments in research and development are at a historic low, comprising merely 3.8 percent of the federal budget and 0.8 percent of GDP.

According to estimates by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, from 2010 to 2013, federal research and development was cut by 16.3 percent -- the fastest decline in a three-year period since the Space Race ended. Sequestration alone will lead to an average annual cut of $11.5 billion in federal funding, bringing it to the lowest levels in over a decade.

These cuts have an immediate impact on current research, and they discourage the best and the brightest from entering careers in research and development. Those effects may not be felt yet, but the impact on our long-term competitiveness will be devastating.

Study after study has shown that federal funding of research has a high return on investment. By underfunding basic science research, the U.S. is slowly chipping away at our global competitiveness.

From 2001-2011, the National Science Board indicates that the percentage of global R&D invested by the U.S. shrank from 37 percent to under 30 percent, while Asia increased its share to 34 percent, edging out the U.S.

For 20 years, I conducted research in high-energy particle physics at Fermi National Laboratory. I know firsthand that scientific research isn't a spigot that can be turned on and off. Research requires a steady commitment of time, talent and resources. The damage done to our nation's research capabilities by mindless budget cuts will not be reversible.

The greatest long-term threat our country faces -- on both military and economic fronts -- is the threat of losing our role as world leader in innovation in science and technology. Without appropriate support for basic science research, it is very likely that the next big innovations, and the jobs they create, will occur overseas.

As Congress crafts future budgets, it is critical to remember what is at stake. We cannot let America's role as a leader in science, technology and innovation go out with a whimper.

• U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, a Democrat representing the 11th District of Congress, is a former high-energy physicist from Naperville.

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