One of the best presidential debates in a generation focused attention on a question that will drive American competitiveness for years to come: What is the federal government’s role in fostering innovation?
While the first debate offered a glimpse of how Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney might approach that question, details matter. That’s especially true when the unavoidable realities of federal budget deficits could dramatically curtail federal investment in research and development.
President Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Romney sounded more in agreement than not Wednesday night when the debate turned to the importance of producing students and workers with the right science, technology, engineering and math skills.
Even before the debate, Romney was on record as saying one of the government’s useful roles is fostering innovation while investing in technologies – power generation, fuel cells, nanotechnology and materials science – that will help the United States grow. For his part, Obama has stressed the importance of alternative energy and related technologies and using two-year colleges to train workers in tech and health fields.
What’s missing, however, is a specific discussion by both candidates of what will happen to America’s science and technology competitiveness if automatic spending cuts to key R&D programs take effect next year.
Major research universities, academic health centers, small businesses driven by R&D and others are bracing for the effects of “sequestration,” or automatic spending cuts, to programs that have historically attracted federal dollars. These programs finance basic research as well as applied research that spurs American innovation while creating new companies and jobs, which are the life’s blood of the U.S. economy.
Scheduled for deep cuts are the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Science Foundation. Estimates vary, but some experts fear two-thirds of all new research grants would be eliminated.
“In the past 40 years or so, this is the largest threat we have faced to federal research, especially in the life sciences,” said Robert Klein, chairman of the governing board for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “It’s going to severely damage the ability to move new therapies to the marketplace just when we’re on the verge of a revolution in medicine.”
Klein is best known as the force behind Proposition 71, the $6-billion California stem-cell initiative. He recently visited Wisconsin to meet with researchers here and talk about common challenges.
“In California, we’re dedicated to the stem-cell revolution that Wisconsin started,” Klein said. That includes current or pending clinical trials focused on diseases or conditions such as diabetes, leukemia, macular degeneration, epilepsy, sickle cell and more, he said.
“However, the potential savings in dollar terms and in terms of human suffering that will come from those breakthroughs won’t occur if the support is not there to follow through,” Klein added. In other words, long-term savings in health care won’t be realized if new therapies and diagnostics don’t get to market.
It will come down to a debate over money – and priorities. For the most part, Romney has not outlined cuts in specific programs, but he has discussed repealing the Affordable Care Act, exempting Social Security and restoring some specific Medicare cuts. That combination suggests he would have force cuts in other domestic programs. Obama has talked about the debilitating effects of automatic spending cuts on R&D budgets, but critics say the administration may be doing so as a scare tactic while avoiding a more detailed discussion of how to bring the deficit under control.
Both candidates owe voters and the R&D community a more complete discussion. One of America’s enduring advantages in a competitive world is its ability to invent and innovate. The marketplace can’t pull out new ideas if they aren’t there. Federal investment in R&D since World War II has been the seed corn for countless ideas, thousands of companies and millions of private-sector jobs that might not exist today if not for a commitment to basic research.
With a month left in the presidential campaign, there are few topics more important than strategies to maintain American competitiveness. Both candidates have touched on the edges of issue. Now, let’s hear more detail.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. This column was publishied in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Oct. 7, 2012.