To govern is to choose” is a truism that smart politicians generally
ignore as often and as long as they can. However, members of Congress
are now taking up the budget for the coming year and choose they must.
With a likely budget deficit this year of approximately half a trillion
dollars and large deficits projected to the distant horizon, Congress
is under tremendous pressure to cut or severely restrict spending
in virtually every domestic budget category. But there are some areas
where continued investment is important. It would be foolish for Congress
to cut without considering which spending actually provides the greatest
benefit to the public. Yet at least one area that provides such benefit
is under great threat—university-based research.
Few investments provide the extraordinary benefit to the nation’s
economy, security, and quality of life that university research does,
and that research is supported by federal research agencies. But these
agencies—including the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Departments
of Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy, and the National Institutes
of Health—face an uncertain future.
For that reason, it is important that we remind Congress why these
investments in university research are so important. The federal government
supports much of the research that takes place on university campuses.
And 54 percent of the nation’s basic research in engineering, physics,
chemistry, biology, and other key disciplines takes place on those
This research has led to scientific and technological breakthroughs
that have improved our economy, health, national security, and quality
of life in such fundamental ways that it is difficult to imagine our
lives without them.
Engineers understand, and all Americans benefit from, these breakthroughs.
From the extraordinary advance of computers to life-extending medical
technologies, from the exploration of space to the development of
highly accurate weapons to protect our men and women in uniform—university
engineering research has played a role in most major technological
developments of the 20th and 21st centuries. And this list barely
skims the surface.
In addition to producing these kinds of results, our universities
use their research activities to educate students who will become
the next generation's engineers, scientists, teachers, and leaders
in government and industry. It would be virtually impossible to overestimate
the value of that teaching.
Moreover, university research is an important source of economic
growth and well-paying high-tech jobs. These jobs can easily go overseas
if adequate support for research is not provided by the federal government.
Unfortunately, the administration’s proposed budget does not keep
the nation’s commitment to research as strong as it should be. While
resources for NASA would be increased, NSF would receive increases
far below the previous consensus in Congress on what is required to
take full advantage of current scientific opportunities. Funding for
the Department of Energy is reduced by 2 percent while Defense Department
research would be reduced by more than 10 percent. And the primary
program supporting university research at the Department of Homeland
Security would be cut by more than 50 percent.
It is important to note that NSF and the Defense Department alone
fund nearly three fifths of the engineering research on American campuses.
Their proposed budgets do not bode well for expanding engineering
research on university campuses in the near future and might lead
to cuts in certain areas of fundamental engineering research.
To maintain the momentum of discovery, to ensure that our children
and grandchildren continue to receive the full economic, health, and
security benefits of engineering and scientific research, it is important
that Congress find a way to provide necessary resources for science
and engineering research. And it is important that we let them know
Nils Hasselmo is president of the Association of
American Universities, an organization of 62 major public and private