2014 was a year of notable scientific highlights: the first landing on a comet, discovery of a new fundamental particle that sheds light on the origin of the universe, development of the world's fastest supercomputer, and research uncovering new ways to meet global food demands. Unfortunately, none of these were U.S.-led achievements.
A new MIT report warns that the United States is missing out on cutting-edge technological developments and is in danger of falling behind other countries because of ongoing federal funding cuts to basic research. The report -- "The Future Postponed: Why Declining Investment in Basic Research Threatens a U.S. Innovation Deficit" -- notes that countries like China are committing more resources to research, and U.S. cuts could cause "long-term damage" to the country.
Competitors around the world are increasing their investment in basic research, but science funding in the U.S. federal budget is at "the lowest it has been since the Second World War as a fraction of the federal budget," says MIT physicist Marc Kastner, who led the committee that wrote the report. "This really threatens America's future."
In addition to the well-known challenge in supercomputing -- China's Tianhe-2 supercomputer has won top ranking for three years running -- MIT researchers looked at 15 different fields and highlighted the potential benefits of increased federal support for research in each area. "Investing in basic research has always paid off over time," Kastner said. "And even if the future payoffs are not as large, there is no doubt that we will suffer if we do not keep up with those nations that are now making bigger investments than we are."
Research areas in computer technology that are lagging due to insufficient funding include cyber security, quantum computing, robotics, battery technology, and big data analytics to enable better policy decisions.
Computer hacking, data theft, and other cyber attacks cost the United States billions of dollars per year, and the number of attacks is increasing rapidly. But "fundamentally more secure systems -- where security is built in, and doesn't depend on programmers never making mistakes or users changing their passwords -- are possible."
In addition to redesigning computers to eliminate core security weaknesses in their architecture -- a historical legacy from the late 1970s and early 1980s, when computers were 10,000 times slower, had much smaller memories, and were not networked -- a second fundamental cause of cyber insecurity is the weakness of our access authorization.
"Both of these fundamental weaknesses could be overcome, if we decided to do so .... But current investments in these priority areas, especially in non-defense systems, are either non-existent or too small to enable development and testing of a prototype system with demonstrably better security and with performance comparable to commercial systems."
Quantum physics can be harnessed to offer computing power that dwarfs today's supercomputers and makes long-distance communications systems unhackable. Scientists predict advanced quantum computers capable of broader applications might be possible within a decade.
Although the field of quantum computing began in the United States, "there are now large efforts underway in several countries to install and scale up these technologies .... U.S. leadership is not assured, especially given recent budget constraints, while the potential outcomes seem quite important both strategically and commercially."
Robots are allowing the United States and other developed countries to "reshore" part of their economies, creating numerous opportunities for domestic employment and economic growth, according to the report. Unfortunately, while the United States is a leading country in the use of industrial robots, no U.S. company is a market leader in designing and manufacturing them. Most come from Japan or Europe, with South Korea and especially China quickly on the rise.
According to the report:
The combined U.S. investment is dwarfed by similar new initiatives worldwide. The European Union's new program, for example, commits about $3 billion in a combined public-private effort designed to ensure that the EU retains a 30 to 40 percent market share in the global robotics industry, estimated to reach $70 billion by 2020. The United States is already relying on other countries to provide industrial robots. Staying competitive in rapidly growing and evolving new markets for robotics will require larger investments.
Batteries are ubiquitous and indispensable in modern society. With improvements, batteries could enable a more efficient power grid and more widespread use of wind and solar energy; transform the car industry; and become a critical component in the smart, energy-efficient houses of the future.
But "international competition is fierce, and U.S. efforts are lagging. In fact, while lithium battery technology was conceived and researched in the U.S., today Japan, China, and Korea dominate production and harvest the economic benefits. Those same countries have all initiated national research programs focused on next-generation batteries that are already starting to yield discoveries .... To compete, the U.S. will have to markedly step up its game."
Big data enables better policy decisions
Research in the social and economic sciences can have significant impact on regulatory policy and strategies to stimulate economic growth. "There is a huge new opportunity in applying big data analytic tools to administrative records .... This is an area where European countries, especially in Scandinavia, are moving well ahead of the U.S. in providing data access, enabling the linking of multiple data sets, and gaining useful insights for improved policy design."
However, cuts in federal spending have been particularly hard on social science research. A House bill introduced last week by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, proposes cutting almost in half the funding for social sciences -- including the study of human behavior, which is used in research on cyber security as humans are often the weakest security link.
Sounding the alarm
The grim picture for U.S.-funded research has been developing for some time. Last year a survey of more than 67,000 researchers with grants from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation found that nearly half the respondents had been forced by economic pressures to abandon an area of investigation they thought "central to their lab's mission." More than three-quarters had been forced to pare back recruitment of graduate students and research fellows. Nearly half were advising their students to seek careers outside academia or abroad.
"Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle love to pick on public grants to scientific projects whose thumbnail descriptions they can't understand or they can make sound ridiculous," the L.A. Times noted. "Usually they pair these exercises in caricature with calls for more 'practical' research projects, as though these can be conjured out of thin air."
The director of the National Institutes of Health confirmed that fewer grants are being awarded and jobs and programs are being cut. In decades past, research financed by the institutes won more than 100 Nobel Prizes. The cutbacks, Dr. Francis Collins said, were "profoundly discouraging."
"Some areas of research are so strategically important, that for the U.S. to fall behind ought to be alarming," MIT's report warns.