Column: America’s poor record on COVID-19 reflects stagnant federal science funding

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Among the many ways that the coronavirus crisis has exposed America’s decline as a world leader, one that has gotten insufficient attention is the federal government’s decline as a supporter of scientific research.

One can look at the consequences in several different ways. One certainly is the collapse of the American healthcare infrastructure in the face of a challenge that could more easily have been met with even minimally competent federal technological leadership.

Another is the government’s ceding responsibility for basic research to private enterprise, which doesn’t like to do much of it. Then there’s the politicization of science, which undermines institutional research and drains government programs of talented researchers.

The topic of America’s scientific preparedness has been receiving an airing lately against the backdrop of the pandemic.

Conservative economist Alex Tabarrok calls “the failure to spend on actually fighting the virus with science … mind boggling” and “a stunning example of our inability to build.” (He frets that we spend too much on defense and “welfare,” meaning Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and not enough on “innovation.”) Venture financier Marc Andreessen points to a “smug” absence of desire to invest in education, housing and other public goods.

It’s fair to say that higher spending on basic research wouldn’t necessarily have produced a more effective response to the coronavirus, since the virus is novel and many of its aspects still confound medical researchers.

Private enterprise, moreover, has been energized to research and, if warranted, manufacture treatments or a vaccine for the disease. If that happens, the power of American pharmaceutical manufacturing may show itself.

Kevin Drum of Mother Jones, who pointed us to Tabarrok’s analysis, aptly observes that the culprit in America’s pathetically slow rollout of COVID-19 testing hasn’t been a lack of scientific research and development, but infrastructure and technology spending: “It is disgraceful that we’ve been so slow to roll this out, but it’s not really related to R&D.”

He’s right about that, but the nation’s approach to the “D” of R&D isn’t entirely unrelated to its approach to the “R.” The record shows that the U.S. government has been increasingly indifferent, even hostile, to spending on basic scientific research, the seed corn of the possible development of treatments and a cure for COVID-19.

The trend dates back decades. But certainly it has picked up steam under President Trump, who has systematically stripped federal agencies of their scientific authority and, during the current crisis, seems to have paid little mind to the scientific advice he’s given.

Trump’s anti-immigrant policies also threaten to choke off one of the traditional advantages of U.S. science, which is its receptiveness to students and scientists from abroad. In just the last few days, according to Politico, the Trump administration cut off funding for a project supported by National Institutes of Health studying how coronaviruses jump from bats to humans, as the virus responsible for the current pandemic apparently did. The project involved collaboration with a scientific instituted in Wuhan, China, the city where the pandemic originated.

As we’ve reported, since at least 2000, scientists have become increasingly concerned about “a growing U.S. innovation deficit,” as a 2015 report by MIT put it.

The report listed four landmark scientific breakthroughs of the prior year: the first spacecraft landing on a comet; the discovery of the Higgs boson, a new fundamental particle; the development of the world’s fastest supercomputer; and new research in plant biology pointing to new ways to meet global food needs.

Then came the punchline: None was a U.S.-led achievement. The first two were the products of European-led consortia, and credit for the second two belonged to the Chinese — “reflecting that nation’s emergence as a science and technology power.”

The report attributed the absence of U.S. leadership in these innovations “in part to declining public investment in research.” In a follow-up report a year later, researchers from a dozen top research institutions examined tangible results from basic science, including an Ebola vaccine and a practical demonstration of the principle underlying quantum computing and ultra-secure quantum communications.

“Increasingly, as U.S. science investment stagnates, some of these breakthroughs — both in fundamental research and in practical applications — are occurring outside the United States,” the researchers reported.

One field in which basic research was shortchanged, the MIT report noted, was the fight against infectious disease. Writing in 2015, the authors focused on Ebola, the most dangerous viral disease of the time, but their conclusions could apply almost as well to COVID-19.

The problem, the authors suggested, was an overreliance on “privately funded research in pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies. The private sector was successful at devising “drugs, tests, and procedures needed to combat the diseases of the developed world,” but “existing priorities and incentives are not sufficient to prepare for diseases that emerge by jumping from animals to humans in impoverished parts of the developing world.”

Creating drugs and tests for known diseases is applied research. But “if we are to be prepared for the next viral epidemic, we need to invest in the basic research to characterize and understand all known viruses with the potential to be highly infectious,” the MIT report warned. Its words reverberate today.

Because private commercial companies seldom invest in research they can’t reliably link to their core businesses, it falls to the public sector to fund basic research — for the same reason that government made the initial investments in basic infrastructure such as interstate highways, Hoover Dam and the internet.

Since about 1986, however, U.S. government investment in R&D has stagnated at around $100 billion a year, according to the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (with a brief spike to $126 billion in 2009, due to the post-crash stimulus). Business R&D, however increased from $70 billion in 1980 to $300 billion in 2016, an increase of 340%.

It’s also true that, while America’s funding of basic research has remained stagnant in dollars and declined in relation to the burgeoning growth in its economy, the absolute numbers remain impressive.

The $100 billion a year spent by U.S. government agencies is more than that of any other country’s public sector, according to UNESCO. China’s outlay of roughly $80 billion from the public sector and $300 billion from business adds up to about 2% of its gross domestic product spent on R&D of all forms, compared to 2.7% in the U.S.

Yet if we measure a country’s commitment to R&D in relation to the size of its economy, the U.S. lands behind much smaller countries, including Germany (2.9%), Japan (3.4%), Israel (4.2%) and South Korea (4.3%).

In the U.S., basic research has long been hampered by political narrow-mindedness and ideological roadblocks. The U.S. abandoned its plan to build the world’s most powerful atom-smasher, thus maintaining a lead first established at UC Berkeley with Ernest Lawrence’s invention of the cyclotron, when Congress pulled the plug after spending $2 billion.

Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg, a leader of the superconducting super collider project, recalled one telling encounter with a congressman who opposed the SSC. “He said that he wasn’t against spending on science, but that we had to set priorities. I explained that the SSC was going to help us learn the laws of nature, and I asked if that didn’t deserve a high priority. I remember every word of his answer. It was ‘No.’”

The quest for the biggest, best atom-smasher was won by the Large Hadron Collider, which was built by a European team and achieved the breakthrough discovery of the Higgs boson.

In subsequent years, Republicans in Congress have tried to stifle research into climate change, presumably at the behest of their patrons in the fossil fuel industry. George W. Bush blocked research into embryonic stem cells, a bow to Christian conservatives who saw it as a violation of religious principles. (Bush’s action prompted California votes to create a $3-billion state stem cell program in 2004.)

Could a more robust approach to funding basic science have placed the U.S. in the lead in the fight against COVID-19? All that one can say is that allowing spending to stagnate didn’t help. And in this crisis, we need all the help we can get.


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