Rockefeller: Does Congress Have the Will to Protect Our Lead in Science and Research?

November 6, 2013

JDR Head ShotWASHINGTON, D.C. – Senator Jay Rockefeller today called on his colleagues to make the critical investments in innovation and science that lead to high paying jobs and a growing economy. Rockefeller, the chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, convened a hearing with researchers, scientific experts and educators to discuss how an increase in federal investments would benefit U.S. innovation and research and development (R&D).

During his opening statement for a hearing to kick off the reauthorization of the COMPETES Act, Rockefeller noted that federal investments have led to major breakthroughs that would not have been part of our lives otherwise. If Congress continues down the path of limiting investments, he noted, we have no idea what breakthroughs this country would lose out on.

“Without these investments, we won’t have the next biotechnology, we won’t have the next GPS, we won’t have the next Internet. What we will have is a stagnant economy,” Rockefeller said. “The question is do we have the guts and the political will to do what we need to do?”

The COMPETES Act intends to increase U.S. competitiveness and innovation through federal science, research and Science, Technology, Engineering and Manufacturing (STEM) education investments. Rockefeller implored his colleagues to support increasing these critical investments by reauthorizing the COMPETES Act. COMPETES was first passed in 2007 and reauthorized in 2010, with strong bipartisan support both times. Today’s hearing is the first in a series set to examine federal investments in STEM education, research and development, and innovation programs.

Rockefeller pointed out the federal government is responsible for 31 percent of the nation’s R&D investments, but funding is falling due to the across the board budget cuts known as the sequester along with other fights in Congress over funding levels. The recent government shutdown was further stress on the economic recovery and halted progress on many critically important scientific programs being conducted at federal government departments and agencies. 

“If we’re going to continue to lead and compete, we have to protect our lead in science and research,” Rockefeller added. 

One of the witnesses at today’s hearing, Dr. Maria Klawe who is the President of Harvey Mudd College in California, told the Committee that the congressional budget cuts are having real impacts on U.S. innovation and hindering the abilities of the nation’s next generation of researchers.

“Watching what happened at [the National Science Foundation] due to sequestration, it’s clear that we’re not only limiting our ability to innovate, we’re limiting our ability to recruit young students to STEM fields,” said Klawe.

The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology surveyed scientists recently and found that 53 percent of respondents have already turned away promising researchers due to a lack of funding, and 18 percent are considering moving their research outside of the U.S. Klawe also highlighted the historic lack of young women entering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields and steps her college is taking to close the gap.

Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier, the Vice Chairman of the National Science Board and Vice President for Research and Professor of Meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, said that the matter of federal funding for science and research comes down to keeping the U.S. successful on a global scale.

“We know how to be competitive in this nation. In order for this nation to be globally competitive we have to be effective in basic research. Basic research allows us to control our destiny,” Droegemeier said.

Another witness, Dr. Saul Perlmutter, has intimate experience with the ways basic research leads to life-changing discoveries. He is the Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and won the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for research that was primarily funded by the federal government. During his testimony, Perlmutter credited federal grants with his successful career.

“Collaborations with universities, industry and other national laboratories have been a constant and critical part of my research career. In other words, it may not take a village, but it does take an ecosystem to advance scientific and innovation progress,” Perlmutter said.