Short shrift for science

Posted on December 5, 2005

THE UNITED States has mom, apple pie, and a booming celebrity culture. But what gives the country a competitive global edge is science: from drugs to medical devices to the basic research that explores fundamental questions without having a specific application in mind. Sadly, just as other countries are revving up research funding, federal science agencies face limits. President Bush proposed a one percent increase for the National Institutes of Health's 2006 budget, which would be eroded by inflation. If NIH has less purchasing power, it could be forced to give grants to a smaller percent of applicants, capping the growth of new knowledge that can change, and save, lives. With less chance of getting a federal grant, young scientists have a tougher time leaving the labs of older colleagues and striking out on their own -- or sticking with research at all. ''The impact Congress is about to have on life sciences and health and related enterprises is going to be devastating," Robert Brown, Boston University's new president, told Globe editors and reporters last week. Frank Solomon, an MIT biology professor, agrees, saying young scientists have to prepare for careers seeking corporate funding even as struggling companies cut their research budgets. Solomon also argues that the structure of academic science has to change, because even generous funding can't keep up with the growing number of scientists. Congress could chose another path. In May, Senators Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, and Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat, asked the National Academy of Sciences to come up with ways to enhance science and technology. The National Academy came back with a warning: While people assume the United States ''will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world." The academy report suggested four goals. First, improve K-12 science education, annually recruiting 10,000 math and science teachers. Second, increase the national commitment to basic research. How do cells divide? An answer won't immediately yield a marketable pill or product. But basic research sparks new knowledge and unexpected benefits. For example, atomic research done in the 1930s and 1940s supports today's global positioning systems, helping lost drivers and facilitating military maneuvers. Third, make American colleges and universities the world's best places to study science. And fourth, use policies like tax credits to encourage more innovation and investment. Congressional spending on science also improves education and healthcare and makes undreamed of contributions to the future.