Last week, the White House released an impact report touting instances of President Barack Obama’s leadership in science, technology and innovation. Since 2009, the president has proudly proclaimed his support for science and technology, perhaps exemplified by proposed increases in funding for research and development in his fiscal 2017 budget and the creation of an annual White House science fair. The president has introduced a number of initiatives to spur discovery and innovation and has made public statements advocating for fundamental research and emphasizing the role of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education in ensuring the sustainability of the United States economy. The impact report highlights 100 examples of Obama’s guidance and boasts 28 initiatives that spur innovation, increase representation from underrepresented minorities or address a national need.
A gap, however, exists between the president’s plans and congressional realities. During Obama’s two terms, federal investments in research and development after plummeting at the beginning of his first term have crept back up toward funding levels seen in the early 2000s. As the saying goes, “money talks” and a true emphasis on expanding investments in R&D requires not only the creation of initiatives, which are admittedly important for guiding research in new and important areas, but also infusing the scientific community with the funds needed to conduct good, robust research.
From 2009 to 2017, the president’s budget has proposed an overall 3 percent increase of federal funding for R&D. It is well known that Obama inherited an economy in freefall, with unemployment reaching 10 percent, as well as a Congress that has been disinterested in the president’s agenda; therefore, the ground for federal funding during the current administration has not been as fertile as it was, for instance, during the Bush administration. This may be most evident in initiatives like the Cancer Moonshot, which rely heavily on funding from nongovernmental organizations.
Nevertheless, what we would like to see when someone boasts about his/her support is a substantial increase in investments. By contrast, in 1961 President John F. Kennedy made a declaration to put a man on the moon and with congressional cooperation federal R&D outlays increased by 44%.
How different would the research landscape look if we had a White House and Congress that could truly work together to accomplish goals today? Undoubtedly, Obama has done a lot with the cards he’s been dealt, but, with uncertainties in funding and the appropriations process stalled, it is clear that more needs to be done to support the research enterprise not only at the White House but within Congress as well.
We hope that the country takes the time to acknowledge that, though we’ve come far in support of the sciences, we still have much farther to go.