January 2012

America needs more deep innovation

Our research universities are looking for quicker payoffs too. Universities are becoming more entrepreneurial as their federal support shrinks. For example, as our pharmaceutical industry grows more risk averse, academics are stepping up. By one estimate, nearly 80 academic research units have sprung up in the last four years focused on pharmaceutical discovery, which is traditionally the business of industry. Of course, we all benefit from the start-up companies that universities spin off. But there’s also a potential downside. If our universities divert too many resources to short-term payoffs, we risk losing the basic-science wellspring of tomorrow’s science and technology.


The top panel of the figure shows the shifting balance between the two main funders of academic research. Until recently, NIH budgets roughly have kept pace with the economy. But NSF budgets have not. The NSF’s discipline-driven funding is a shrinking part of university funding.

And, look at the shifting balance in university departments. A typical university used to have one department each for biology, chemistry and physics. Now a university may have five to 10 different flavors of biology departments (biochemistry, systems biology, bioengineering, genetics, physiology and so on), while still having only one for each of the other basic sciences. Biology, of course, is crucially important. But the NSF provides the broad underpinnings of all sciences. We don’t know where to look for the next unexpected, transformational technology. We should not foreclose our options. Tomorrow’s science, engineering and technology may spring up from discoveries that are unimaginably unrelated to the disciplines in which they are born.

What I propose
Here’s what I would say to a national innovation czar, if we had one. First, to solve a country-size problem— like our current jobs crisis— by creating the next $100 billion-per-year technical industry, we need to increase the federal R&D budget to 1.7 percent of GDP. That was the level that worked in the 1960s when President Kennedy made good on his commitment to land a person on the moon. Increased funding would mean raising federal R&D to two-and-a-half times its current level. Today’s NSF budget should be around $17 billion, and the NIH’s should be around $78 billion. That seems like a lot of money, but, as former U.S. Rep. John Porter, R-Ill., once told me, the issue is not dollars; the issue is priorities. Even at those amounts, we would still be unable to fund many meritorious proposals. And today’s entire NSF budget (around $7 billion) is smaller than the single-company R&D budgets of Pfizer, Merck, Microsoft or Ford.

Second, I would suggest that our innovation czar develop new initiatives to protect deep innovation. After the 1960s and ’70s, our portfolio of deep innovation has become inadequate to power an economy as large and technology-based as ours. For the disruptive technologies that have driven economic revolutions— and that could create the jobs of the future— we need more academic research, and we need a protected portfolio of deep innovation.

Thanks to Alberto Perez and Jim Larimer for their assistance.

deep_innovation_ken_dillKen Dill (dill@laufercenter.org) is the director of the Laufer Center for Physical and Quantitative Biology and is professor of physics and chemistry, Stony Brook University.


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Dear Ken, This is a very important and timely article. If the US does not raise basic research budgets, it may soon fall behind other countries such as China where basic research budgets are only increasing, and risks throwing away the large investments it has made in training graduate students and postdocs, who face a continually narrowing job market, and risks losing our best minds to other countries. Chris McClendon Postdoctoral Fellow, UCSD



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