Op Ed / Essays

For Future Prosperity, Sow Seeds Now

Saturday, August 14, 2010
The Boston Globe, coauthored with Paul E. Jacobs

With the nation in the midst of the most job-killing recession in many decades, the US Senate should plant the seeds for the next generation of job-creating industries by reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act. This legislation aims to restore the nation's capacity for innovation and industry-building by investing in math, science, and engineering education and in fundamental scientific research. Study after study has shown that since World War II, science-driven technological innovation, often stemming from federally funded research, has driven more than half of US economic growth. Moreover, a 2007 report from the National Academies pointed to alarming threats to US growth and competitiveness and argued for dramatic new investment in education and basic research. Two recent reports underscore the value – and the urgency – of such investment.

A report from The Science Coalition, a nonprofit organization of 45 public and private research universities, traces the origins of 100 American companies back to federally funded, fundamental research. With combined annual revenues approaching $100 billion, the 100 firms in this sample – including Cisco Systems, Genentech, Google and SAS – provide jobs for more than 100,000 people. The report also features emerging market leaders that are already driving next-generation innovation, including advanced battery manufacturer A123 Systems (an MIT spin-off), network security trendsetter Arbor Networks and AIDS vaccine developer GeoVax Labs. Many leading companies that The Science Coalition highlights didn't even exist 20 years ago, as the transit time from lab to market, from idea to industry, continues to shrink. And while the report emphasizes the job-creating power of federal research investments, as translated through industry, it also documents a range of other benefits to our economy and our society.

Basic research creates jobs directly for the research teams involved and indirectly fuels their local economies; witness the economic strength of university-anchored research hubs like Boston, the Research Triangle and Silicon Valley. Basic research also provides an invaluable training ground for the next generation of scientists and engineers, doctors and teachers, inventors and entrepreneurs. Indeed, Qualcomm¹s founders first met as engineering classmates at MIT. And from advances in cloud computing to clean energy solutions and new medical breakthroughs, basic research creates new knowledge that improves our competitiveness and productivity, preserves the global environment, enhances our quality of life and secures our future.

A second study, from Congress' own Joint Economic Committee, powerfully argues that given the link between basic research and world-changing innovations, the US government may be significantly under-investing in basic research. "As the economy recovers from the worst recession since the Great Depression," concludes the Joint Economic Committee, "the United States needs to look under every stone to identify and support the next generation of innovations that will create new industries, spur job creation, and fuel economic growth. Basic research plays a critical role in sparking innovation. Now, more than ever, basic research is needed to chart the course forward."

As the leader of a premier research university focused on technology and science, and of a pioneering wireless communications company that employs more than 16,000 people and is rooted in basic research, we could not agree more. We have seen over and over how scientific advances, funded by government, unleash the kind of game-changing innovations that have fueled generations of American prosperity. And we have witnessed firsthand how other nations are aggressively building their "innovation economies" – modeled on our own – in part through significant investments in basic research.

The House of Representatives passed the America COMPETES bill in May, calling for an investment of $85.6 billion over five years. Now it is up to the Senate to recognize the indisputable value of fundamental research to the nation's prosperity and continued economic growth.

As published in the Boston Globe. Coauthored with Paul E. Jacobs, chairman and CEO of Qualcomm Inc.
MIT is a member of The Science Coalition.