Scientific Research and National Security

It is hard to consume news media in the United States today and not be inundated with gloomy predictions about the impending budget sequester. Regardless of how one views the political infighting amongst our elected officials, there are certain truths about how a failure to resolve the budget impasse will impact many aspects of our daily lives. Critical among these is scientific research. The National Institutes of Health have already initiated cuts to the budgets of peer-reviewed, “funded” grant applications, notwithstanding pay-lines that remain at or near the single digits for many agencies. The impact of decreasing federal investment on the future of scientific research, particularly in the area of supporting young investigators emerging from training, has been poignantly highlighted,1 as has been the general need for scientists to better communicate the value of scientific discoveries to the public,2 so as to justify investment of tax dollars.

I submit that the even more nefarious effect of a failure to support scientific research comes in the realm of national security. To be clear, I am talking about all scientific research, not just that associated with defense. Ever since Western European nations made the remarkable decision to create a profession in which a person was tasked with investigation of the unknown (that is, the scientific researcher), the most creative and motivated scientists have sought PhD training in the countries that afforded the best infrastructure for such investigation. It was not always so, but following World War II, a conflation of geopolitical changes and wise public investment made the United States the most sought after destination for academic training at all levels. Years later, the United States’ putting a man on the moon was an unequivocal message to the rest of the world: this is the place where dreams can be pursued, where big ideas have the chance to be realized, regardless of whether you are a physical, social, biological or natural scientist (and regardless of your political inclinations).

My colleagues who have immigrated to the United States over the past 25 years invariably cite the opportunity for career development and scientific research in the United States as the number one reason they came. This is a clear example of American soft power in the global domain arising from public investment in scientific research at home. It is an obvious success story for the openness of our society, too; but this openness would have no impact on national security if we were unable to attract the most brilliant scientists and engineers.

No serious debate on our country’s governance questions the need for a strong military…in fact, few would question the necessity that the United States should have the strongest military. This logic is no less true for scientific research—including infrastructure and human talent. Educating the public about the importance of scientific exploration goes beyond explaining the fruits of the discoveries for human health, the development of new technologies and our knowledge of the natural world. Our communication with the public and elected officials must make clear the causal link between American preeminence in scientific research and our national security. Our competitors around the globe clearly understand this connection and accordingly are investing heavily in science. The magnitude of damage to our scientific infrastructure, and the extent of attrition of the most talented scientists, inflicted by continued cuts to publically funded research are impossible to predict. It is inconceivable to argue, however, that as we continue to starve the engine that attracted the best from around the world—while at the same time, our competitors wisely fuel their own—that we can remain leaders in years to come.

Tom Vondriska

September 20, 2013

1. Alberts B. Am i wrong? Science. 2013;339:1252

2. Bubela T, Nisbet MC, Borchelt R, Brunger F, Critchley C, Einsiedel E, Geller G, Gupta A, Hampel J, Hyde-Lay R, Jandciu EW, Jones SA, Kolopack P, Lane S, Lougheed T, Nerlich B, Ogbogu U, O'Riordan K, Ouellette C, Spear M, Strauss S, Thavaratnam T, Willemse L, Caulfield T. Science communication reconsidered. Nature biotechnology. 2009;27:514-518