Federal investment in research-there are no losers

Written by: Chris Waters

Primary Source: Watershedding

Barry and Larry, long-time friends, joined one another for their Friday breakfast get together at their local diner, “The Greasy Fork”, and after discussing Michigan State’s recent loss to North Carolina in basketball and the upcoming football game against Ohio State, the topic soon turned to politics.

“I heard the federal government is going to set new budget priorities on December 13th” stated Barry to Larry. “The budget is out of control and needs to be chopped, chopped, chopped.” To emphasize his point, Barry sliced his sausage patty into multiple small triangular pieces and then began eating them one by one.

“I agree with you, Barry, that the government does need to take a hard look at the budget”, Larry stated, “but it must make smart choices of where to cut and where to invest.” Larry emphasized this point by piling his hash brown higher while taking a bite of toast.

“Invest? I think all government spending is bad”, Barry exclaimed spearing another sausage bite with his fork.

“No way Barry, the government must invest in specific areas to help our country grow. We must look to the future. Take investment in scientific research for example, this is an area that the government should be investing in, not cutting” Larry calmly stated as he sipped a drink of his black coffee.

Barry replied, “Look, I want to find a cure for cancer, new sources of energy, and all that stuff just as much as the next guy, but why should the government fund it? If there is a need for such technology, private business will develop it. Capitalism is what should drive research-not tax dollars!”

Larry responded back, “There is certainly a big role for private investment in research, Barry. But for-profit businesses only develop new technology that will turn a profit. Most of the research funded by the federal government supports basic research to discover brand new ideas that drive entire new fields, or the development of technologies that may be risky or not highly profitable, such as new antibiotics.”

“Antibiotics, why do we need more of those? We have plenty-see, another waste of federal dollars” Barry replied smugly.

Larry took a drink of orange juice and then responded. “Many infections are now becoming untreatable due to antibiotic resistance. The Center for Disease Control has reported 25,000 people die each year from untreatable infections, and that number is continuing to grow. It won’t be long until we enter a post-antibiotic era where infectious disease becomes our number one killer unless we continue to invest in research.”

“Now that you mention it, a high school buddy of mine died from an untreatable infection” Barry recalled somberly. “OK, so I get your point, Larry, the federal government should invest in research. But don’t we already invest billions of dollars? Why do researchers need more? Can’t they take a cut like everyone else?”

“True, Barry, the federal government invests about 50 billion dollars in research, but in terms of purchasing power that number has stagnated and declined by 25% in the last decade. So our country is shrinking its investment in research when it should be growing it” said Larry spearing one of Barry’s sausage triangles.

“Yeah but I bet this croissant we still invest way more than any other country, right?” Barry stated, placing a delicious cream cheese morsel between them.

“You would be wrong” exclaimed Larry, grabbing his prize. He loved cream cheese croissants. “Over the next five years China will invest twice as much as America in biomedical research! Of the top ten countries in research investment we invest the lowest in terms of percent gross domestic product at 0.2%. Over the last two years, even in this global economic downturn, the US is the ONLY country shrinking its investment in research as a share of GDP. The rest of the world is growing it!”

Barry was quiet for a moment. “So we are going to fall behind?”

“We are already starting to fall behind! New drugs and technologies which were once developed in the US will be developed elsewhere. The economic stimulus of these new technologies will not grow our economy but another countries economy. What will this do to the budget problems we have now?” asked Larry to Barry.

Both men set down their forks, somewhat greasy, as the debate became serious. “Well, I guess a smaller GDP would mean less tax revenues for the government and a smaller budget, leading to more budget problems.”

“Exactly!” exclaimed Larry. “Studies have estimated that investment in research has a six fold return on the GDP. So a one billion dollar investment now will grow the GDP by 6 billion dollars in a few years. Who wouldn’t kill to get that kind of return on their 401K plans?” Barry counted his fingers, estimating what his retirement savings would be worth with that kind of return. “Information technology, which was first started by government sponsored research, now contributes 1 trillion dollars to the GDP” Larry added.

“Wow, that is a lot” agreed Barry, realizing he wasn’t going to win this one.

“And, on top of all of these benefits to investing, the failure of our government to support scientific research is leading to a US “brain drain”. Talented individuals from other countries are no longer looking to the US as a destination to do research. Home grown talent that has spent decades training to become scientific researchers is now considering leaving the US to do research in other countries because the funding climate is so bad here” Larry interjected.

“US citizens would leave the US to do research in other countries because of the lack of funding?” Barry asked surprised.

Larry flagged down Helen, their regular waitress, for the check. “Indeed, a recent survey of scientists in the US found that close to 20% were considering leaving the US to perform research in other countries!”

“I don’t believe that-no way” Barry countered.

“With grant success rates to the National Institutes of Health less than 10% and talented people with great ideas having to shut down labs due to lack of funding, why would you not believe it?” Larry asked him.

The check arrived. Both men looked at each other across the booth, neither flinching. Finally, Barry sighed and picked it up. “OK, you won this one. Federal support of research is a good investment. I’ll go write my congressman. But I’ll get you next week on gun control!”

The men laughed, shook hands, and left “The Greasy Fork” to the tinkling of a bell signaling the opening, and closing, of the door.


US federal budget guidelines are to be decided by December 13th, 2013. Funding of scientific research is a great investment, and sorely needed. It will only help with the budget problems we currently have, not add to them. Let your voice be heard now!

Much of the information stated above can be found in these two excellent policy pieces which I suggest you read.



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Chris Waters
I am an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University studying microbiology, chemical signaling, gene regulation, evolution, and developing new antibacterial compounds. I hope to provide some perspective on the ups and downs as life as an assistant professor in a large research institution. You can learn more about my group at: https://www.msu.edu/~watersc3/