April 2012

Indications of a bright future through science


As scientists and science educators, we strongly value rational decision making based on reliable data. Both in and outside of academia, we depend on research and development and education funding from a variety of sources to conduct our work. As we perform research and teach science, we mentor and advise students at many levels of training and expertise on why and how to become a practicing scientist. One source of current and reliable data with which to reinforce both our funding justifications and our education and professional development advice is the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators from the National Science Board, the governing body of the National Science Foundation. The SEI are factual and governing policy-neutral. Here, I’ll highlight a few points from the 2012 SEI that influence several aspects of my own scientific career development and the advice I give to aspiring scientists (1).

Scientific investment and the U.S. economy
In this election year, with tight budgets in both the U.S. government and private industry, how do we justify our investments in R&D? According to the 2012 SEI, the U.S. has spent about $400 billion on R&D in each of the past few years, with industry contributing 62 percent, the federal government 31 percent, nonprofits 3 percent, colleges and universities 3 percent, and nonfederal governments 1 percent.

The most important justification for continuing and increasing these expenditures comes from considering that fields based in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, collectively referred to as “knowledge- and technology-intensive industries,” or KTI, contributed about 40 percent of the $14-trillion-plus U.S. GDP in each of the past few years (1). As today’s KTI investments lead to tomorrow’s breakthroughs, our nation’s total annual R&D budget currently affords a 14:1 return on investment. That’s comparable to the investment returns from building the U.S. interstate highway system (2). Today, our current R&D investments constitute 2.8 percent of U.S. GDP. To put this in perspective, several other countries, including the members of the European Union, have set goals of attaining and maintaining a level of R&D investment equal to 3 percent of GDP (1). As the U.S. competes globally for KTI market share and aims to attract, train and retain the best and brightest human capital, it is critical that our nation expand R&D expenditures at rates that will stay near or above 3 percent of GDP over the long term.

Educational investment on a personal level
In the early spring of my senior year in high school (14 years ago now), my parents and I visited several Midwest colleges to which I had been accepted. Given that my parents weren’t in a financial position to put me through college, a difficult decision arose. I had a comparatively cheap option, thanks to scholarships, where the biochemistry professor assured my father that I would be a “big fish in a small pond.” At a decidedly higher caliber but more expensive school, a biochemistry professor talked about the challenges and rigor of the program along with the high expectations of the faculty members and the superior capabilities and track records of typical students there. The clincher for my father was when he said, “Don’t just consider the tuition costs over the next four years but also the opportunities that will help your son develop a satisfying and financially rewarding lifelong career.”

I eventually chose both the more challenging school and a career in science, and I have remained very happy with both decisions, even with some lingering college debt. I’ve also recently written about weighing the costs and benefi ts of going to graduate school in the biosciences (3).




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