The first fan letter I ever wrote was at age 7 to Wernher von Braun, the legendary rocket scientist. I dreamt of being a rocket scientist myself (it didn’t work out), and he was the superstar, a man hyped by NASA as the genius who would take America to the moon and beyond. I got back a glossy photo of von Braun and a NASA patch, and I was, figuratively, over the moon.
Von Braun was a symbol of American supremacy in science and research; of course, he was not a native American but a German who came to the United States after World War II and used his talents to rise to the top here.
He was not alone. The United States for many decades has supplemented our native genius (which is plentiful) with the top brains in the world for whom America has been the magnet — the place of freedom, and the best spot bar none to pursue scientific inquiry. We are still at the top, as witnessed by our continuing dominance of Nobel Prizes across the range of scientific enterprises. But the pathologies of our governance are threatening to damage deeply the biggest advantage the United States has as a force in the global economy, our edge in research, development and creativity in science.
Start with the crazy sequester. Dr. Elias Zerhouni, the head of the National Institutes of Health through most of the George W. Bush years, has warned that the cuts to research grants will be damaging enough to the young scientists who count on the grants that we could lose a huge slice of the next generation of scientists. This is on top of the lack of any appropriations certainty that has been fostered by political polarization and the resulting budget games for the past several years, along with the cutbacks in discretionary spending that have eaten into the NIH budget as they have every other agency. The same process has hit R&D across the board, including the budget for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which not only was the incubator for the Internet but has driven some of the most significant research in and out of the defense arena for decades.
For the best and the brightest scientists, the inability to score federal grants for basic research, or any secure sense that such grants will be available in the future, is a huge disincentive to go through the many grueling years of post-graduate training to reach the top of the research ladder — and is an incentive, for those who still do, to turn instead to jobs in private industry, in areas such as pharmaceuticals, computers, oil and gas or medical devices. That is fine — except that private industry does applied research and has zero incentive to do basic research, which is the seed corn of innovation and the basis of American dominance.
The problem is compounded by the drive to reduce health care costs, including via the Affordable Care Act, that are curtailing federal and state money going to teaching hospitals, which are the incubators for much medical research. Combined with the intense pressures on universities to curtail burgeoning college and graduate school tuition, this will reduce the numbers of medical researchers, and debase the opportunities for those who enter the field.
Now throw in the perverse American policies toward immigration, which has taken generations of scientists and engineers from places including India and China and made it difficult for many to come to the United States to study or to stay to hold jobs. Some who are here find that they cannot go back home for weddings or funerals without risking being blocked from re-entering the country.
Countries such as Singapore, Taiwan and China have noticed the changes in the United States and are seizing the opportunity — offering rich incentives, including state-of-the-art labs, generous research grants and major support to our top scientists and biomedical researchers to relocate there — and are moving to fill the void created by our visa roadblocks. Universities in places such as Australia and Germany have moved aggressively to recruit top students from Asia and elsewhere who used to turn only to Harvard, MIT, Yale and Stanford for higher education.
American culture and our emphasis on freedom and creativity remain a huge advantage for us in global competition. But that advantage is not guaranteed in perpetuity. Policies matter. If our tribal politics that is driving penny-wise, pound-foolish is not countered by more sensible allocation of resources with a special and generous focus on investing in the future, we will pay a heavy price.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.