Where is the American innovation engine? Right now, this great engine of growth reminds me of a sputtering car engine, struggling to turn over when the battery is low in sub-freezing temperatures.
What’s worse, we need innovation now, more than ever. Jobs are scarce, jobs that actually pay the rent or mortgage are even scarcer. If we want to see the creation of jobs that have some meat and bones on them, we should be doing everything to get that innovation engine chugging along like it used to. As technology and off-shoring swallows jobs whole into an abyss we count on the innovation engine to create the next generation of jobs. We need the next internet, the next PC, the next wonder drug, the next something…. that will put people back to work.
But it seems as though the federal government could care less about innovation. At least when it comes to the public sector. The sequester is chopping everything in its path, hacking great swaths of R&D out of the budget right and left. At the NIH that has been dying by a thousand cuts, people are scrambling to figure out what they are going to do about the 1.7 billion in cuts they have to deal with in the 2013 budget. Its a 5% chop to budget that has been already hacked to pieces. Researchers are being laid off in droves as the number of grants funded drops by 703 – a drop of nearly 8%.
When we think that the entire biotech industry, a major employer in the United States, was born in large part from public sector research, the logic of cutting the very areas that have proven to promote growth leaves me banging my fists on a wall screaming “WHY?”.
Last Friday on Real Time, Bill Maher talked about the middle and working class squeeze in a very eloquent way. He was talking mostly about low paying jobs and the indifference of the 1% to the plight of the 99%. However, when he talked about squeezing people economically until they went bat-shit crazy, I realized that this may be what will happen to research scientists as they struggle to survive. When their career is on the line, people do crazy things – like fudging results in order to justify funding for that next grant they need to stay afloat. ”Safe projects” that will produce a publishable paper, even if not so innovative, will trump the high-risk, high reward research we need to push innovation forward.
Scientists don’t live in a vacuum. Ivory towers don’t exist anymore. Their higher educations are no longer the armor of protection they used to be. Researchers are just as vulnerable to quixotic employment shifts as any of the rest of us.
The research community is being squeezed to the brink of extinction, just when we need that spark of innovation more than ever before. And of course, to fiscal conservatives, it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Make sure that the NIH is squeezed to the point that it can’t function, and then hold it up as an example of why publicly funded research is a waste of money.
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