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By Nils Hasselmo

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 campuses.

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 we care.


Nils Hasselmo is president of the Association of American Universities, an organization of 62 major public and private research universities.

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