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Save the "R" in R&D.

Fundamental research not only improves our understanding of the natural world but forms the foundation for innovative commercial products. If that basic research isn't done in the U.S., then other countries will reap the benefits.

The ultimate goal of research and development is to produce new or improved products. To stay competitive, companies allocate a portion of their resources to R&D. That portion is typically considerable for startup and high-technology firms. For example, the iPhone arguably propelled Apple to become the largest company in the world by market capitalization. Governments also support R&D for such purposes as better crop yield, medical advances, weaponry, space exploration, energy resources, and clean environment.

The "R" in R&D is broadly divided into applied research and basic research. The latter is also called fundamental, pure, or curiosity research. This type of research improves our understanding of the natural world. Curiosity research rarely pays immediate benefits, and therefore is supported mostly by the taxpayers. In the long term, however, fundamental research forms the foundation for applied research and developing commercial products.

As a rule of thumb, if the development of a prototype costs $100, then applied research costs $10 and pure research costs a meager $1. That modest cost comes at a price: pure research does not often transition to a product, and spectacular long-term successes are not the norm. Basic research is a risky business; nevertheless it is one of the better things of which humans are capable.

A distinguishing characteristic of basic research is its occasional spark to new frontiers unimagined in applied research. Examples abound: instead of developing a better iron lung, a polio vaccine was discovered; a mold that repelled bacteria led to penicillin; molecules' behavior during chemical reactions resulted in the laser; and solving a mathematical riddle metamorphosed into Google. Fundamental research propelled the U.S. to the moon, sequenced the human genome, and produced magnetic resonance imaging.

For 2011, the United States invest ed $405.3 billion in R&D, more than any other country in the world. But as a percentage of gross domestic product, the U.S. takes sixth place after Israel, South Korea, Japan, Sweden, and Finland.

The situation is more ominous when it comes to the R portion of R&D, particularly the share of basic research. Major events such as World War II. the Cold War, and the energy crisis drove investment in pure research. Today, however, federal expenditures in basic science are 0.82 percent the U.S. economy, the lowest level in over fifty years.

De-investment in long-term fundamental research is shortsighted and outright dangerous to the nation's future health, prosperity, and security. It is tantamount to a farmer eating a good portion of the seeds set aside for the next planting season.

In 2013, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, in cooperation with fifteen partner societies concerned with pure research, issued a report, Unlimited Potential, Vanishing Opportunity.

The report surveyed 3,700 scientists from all fifty states. Despite spending far more time writing research proposals, a significant majority of scientists are receiving less federal support than they were a mere three years ago. Eighteen percent of them said they were considering continuing their careers in other countries. Reverse immigration is upon us.

Causes include budget strains to make huge interest payments on the national debt and cover non-discretionary spending, the gridlocked Congress, and a prevailing culture of instant gratification.

The executive and legislative branches of government certainly need to work together to solve today's and tomorrow's problems, and to plant sufficient seeds to feed future generations.

Science and technology will remain the endless frontiers, as long as Homo sapiens are on this or some other planet. If American exceptionalism doesn't lead the charge, others are eager to fill the void.

MOHAMED GAD-EL-HAK is the Inez Caudill Eminent Professor of mechanical and nuclear engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Contact him at
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Title Annotation:COMMENT
Author:Gad-El-Hak, Mohamed
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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