The sci­ence ‘Mir­a­cle Ma­chine’ needs re­fu­el­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - BY ERIC S. LAN­DER AND ERIC E. SCH­MIDT Eric S. Lan­der is president and found­ing di­rec­tor of the Broad In­sti­tute of MIT and Har­vard Univer­sity. Eric E. Sch­midt is the ex­ec­u­tive chair­man of Al­pha­bet, the par­ent com­pany of Google.

For more than a half cen­tury, the United States has op­er­ated what might be called a “Mir­a­cle Ma­chine.” Pow­ered by fed­eral in­vest­ment in sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy, the ma­chine reg­u­larly churns out breath­tak­ing ad­vances.

The Mir­a­cle Ma­chine has trans­formed the way we live and work, strength­ened na­tional de­fense and rev­o­lu­tion­ized medicine. It has birthed en­tire in­dus­tries — or­ga­nized around com­put­ers, biotech­nol­ogy, en­ergy and com­mu­ni­ca­tions — cre­at­ing mil­lions of jobs. It’s the rea­son the United States is the global hub for the tech­nolo­gies of the fu­ture: self-driv­ing cars, genome edit­ing, ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, can­cer im­munother­apy, quan­tum com­put­ers and more.

Our ma­chine is the envy of the world. And yet, while other na­tions, such as China, are work­ing fu­ri­ously to de­velop their own Mir­a­cle Ma­chines, we’ve been ne­glect­ing ours. Though his­tor­i­cally a bi­par­ti­san pri­or­ity, sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy fund­ing has steadily eroded over the past decade. One ex­am­ple among many: Ad­justed for in­fla­tion, the bud­get for the Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health, the fed­eral med­i­cal re­search agency, has fallen since 2003 by nearly 25 per­cent.

If the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion and Congress want to en­sure that the United States re­mains the most pow­er­ful na­tion in the world, they should em­brace and sup­port our Mir­a­cle Ma­chine. The spend­ing bill that Congress passed last week rep­re­sents a good step, but there’s still a long way to go to re­cover lost ground and se­cure our lead­er­ship.

The Mir­a­cle Ma­chine can be traced back to a re­port dur­ing the clos­ing days of World War II called “Sci­ence: The End­less Fron­tier.” The blue­print saw the power of bring­ing to­gether two in­ter­lock­ing en­gines — the pub­lic sec­tor and the pri­vate sec­tor — to drive progress and in­no­va­tion.

The United States has the most dy­namic pri­vate sec­tor in the world, with en­trepreneurs, in­vestors, big com­pa­nies and cap­i­tal mar­kets all ea­ger to li­cense tech­nolo­gies and launch start-ups. But those ven­tures are of­ten driven by tech­nolo­gies that come from ba­sic re­search. Few com­pa­nies un­der­take such re­search be­cause its fruits are typ­i­cally too un­pre­dictable, too far from com­mer­cial­iza­tion and too early to be patentable.

That’s where govern­ment comes in. While in­vest­ing in ba­sic re­search typ­i­cally doesn’t make sense for a busi­ness, it has been a win­ning strat­egy for our na­tion. For 60 years, the fed­eral govern­ment has in­vested roughly a penny on each dol­lar in the fed­eral bud­get into re­search at uni­ver­si­ties and re­search cen­ters. In turn, th­ese in­sti­tu­tions have pro­duced a tor­rent of dis­cov­er­ies and trained gen­er­a­tions of sci­en­tific tal­ent, fu­el­ing new com­pa­nies and spawn­ing new jobs.

For starters, in­vest­ing in cu­rios­ity about the nat­u­ral world has paid stun­ning div­i­dends. Ex­plo­ration of bac­te­ria that thrive in gey­sers or salt flats led to break­through tools that can make mil­lions of copies of DNA mol­e­cules, re­pair dis­ease-caus­ing mu­ta­tions in liv­ing cells and use light pulses to fire nerve cells. Stud­ies of fruit fly em­bryos led to drugs to treat skin can­cer. Aca­demic ideas in­spired by neu­rons ul­ti­mately led to the ar­ti­fi­cial-in­tel­li­gence revo­lu­tion that is trans­form­ing in­dus­try to­day.

Build­ing pow­er­ful tools with­out wor­ry­ing about pre­cisely how they’ll be used has also turned out to be a great pub­lic in­vest­ment strat­egy. Fun­da­men­tal physics stud­ies, funded by pub­lic in­vest­ment, gave us high-en­ergy par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tors, which are now a main­stay in phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal drug de­vel­op­ment, and atomic clocks, which en­able the Global Po­si­tion­ing Sys­tem that guides travelers to their desti­na­tions.

And we’ve wit­nessed first­hand that cre­at­ing and shar­ing moun­tains of sci­en­tific data can drive both ex­plo­ration and com­mer­cial­iza­tion. The $4 bil­lion NIH in­vest­ment in the Hu­man Genome Project, which one of us (Lan­der) co-led, dra­mat­i­cally ac­cel­er­ated the un­der­stand­ing of hu­man dis­ease — and un­leashed roughly $1 tril­lion in eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. That’s like $5 in a sav­ings ac­count grow­ing to $1,250.

Fi­nally, tack­ling novel en­gi­neer­ing chal­lenges has laid the foun­da­tion for new in­dus­tries. In the late 1960s, fed­eral grants to uni­ver­si­ties to ex­plore mes­sage-pass­ing among com­put­ers led di­rectly to the In­ter­net. A $4.5 mil­lion Na­tional Sci­ence Foun­da­tion grant to Stan­ford Univer­sity in 1994, to ex­plore the idea of dig­i­tal li­braries, helped con­trib­ute five years later to the cre­ation of Google. To­day, the U.S. taxes paid each year by the com­pany and by its more than 40,000 do­mes­tic em­ploy­ees to­tal in the bil­lions — a good por­tion of the NSF’s an­nual $7 bil­lion bud­get.

Cru­cially, when sci­en­tific break­throughs spawn new in­dus­tries and jobs, those ben­e­fits oc­cur right here in the United States — be­cause com­pa­nies want to re­main close to the flow of new dis­cov­er­ies and ex­pe­ri­enced work­ers.

The Mir­a­cle Ma­chine has been as­tound­ingly suc­cess­ful. The prob­lem is that too few peo­ple — in govern­ment or in the pub­lic — know how it works. As a re­sult, we’ve been let­ting it fall into dis­re­pair.

If we don’t change course and in­vest in sci­en­tific re­search, we risk los­ing one of Amer­ica’s great­est ad­van­tages. To our last­ing detri­ment, we may wake up to find the next gen­er­a­tion of tech­nolo­gies, in­dus­tries, medicines and ar­ma­ments be­ing pi­o­neered else­where.

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