A wave of optimism swept through the scientific community on October 8 as the U.S. Senate passed the Federal Research and Investment Act of 1998 by unanimous consent. The bill would double the aggregate amount of federal funding for basic research and development over a 12-year period. Although the bill passed the Senate, the rush to finish the 1999 federal budget kept it from reaching the floor of the House of Representatives and the President's desk, so the Congressional session ended without this important legislation becoming law. The encouraging part of this story is that we are better positioned than ever to implement this funding increase.
When Congress resumes this January, I plan to reintroduce the bill with Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-WV) and the 36 other co-sponsors who supported the legislation. In addition to keeping the momentum going in the Senate, we will focus our attention on the House of Representatives. Many members have stated their support for increased basic R&D funding, and we will continue to work with them and the House Science Committee to ensure that this vision becomes a reality.
President Clinton has indicated his support for the Federal Research Investment Act and I am hopeful that the White House will make this legislation a top priority for the 106th Congress. While the Clinton administration has been supportive of basic research, it has not yet made increased funding a focus of its lobbying efforts.
The Federal Research and Investment Act specifically targets federally-funded, non-military R&D while establishing greater accountability mechanisms for both Congress and the White House. Sen. Rockefeller and I have been working together on this legislation for more than a year. It is the product of numerous hearings, caucus events, forums, and meetings with scientists and scholars from across the country. We believe that this legislation is essential to the future economic prosperity of our nation.
Federal R&D spending has dropped from a high of more than 2 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the mid-1960s down to 0.8 percent today. Over the same period, private sector R&D spending has doubled as a percentage of GDP. However, this remarkable commitment by the private sector to invest in R&D builds upon public sector investments made decades ago. While the private sector focuses on product development, the federal government has traditionally supported basic research. The high technology economy depends largely on the knowledge base created by publicly financed research. If the virtuous circle of robust, non-inflationary growth is to continue into the next decade, we must invest greater resources in our knowledge-building infrastructure.
As a physician and scientist myself, I know all too well that those in the scientific and research communities are not accustomed to the back-and-forth of politics. It's imperative, however, that you become involved to help solidify support for this critical investment in our nation's future. You already know the importance of this legislation, but your representative or senator may not.
Call your elected officials. Write the White House. Let them know that federally-funded R&D, performed throughout our national laboratories, universities, and private industry, is currently fueling 50 percent of our national economic growth through improvements in capital and labor productivity.
Also remind them that our overseas competitors are investing heavily in R&D and are highly competitive with the United States in many key research areas. Japan, for example, now spends 2.8 percent of its GDP on R&D.
Now is not the time to let the United States' leadership in science and technology slip. We must reaffirm our national commitment to science and technology and redouble our efforts to ensure that funding is not only maintained, but increased as our country moves into the next century.
William Frist, (R-TN), the only physician and medical scientist in the Senate, was elected in 1993. He is chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation's Subcommittee on Science, Technology, and Space.
Illustration by Rob Collinet
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