The U.S. is Failing Its Scientists

If immediate action isn’t taken, the United States could lose its distinction as the leader in scientific innovation.

Research! America works to bring the nation back to top status. –Lynn Norusis

Photo courtesy of VLADGRIN/


Come 2020, if sufficient funding and resources are not prioritized for the sciences the United States will drop from the top spot in global ranking, says Research! America’s CEO Mary Woolley. In the 25-year existence of the Alexandria-based nonprofit, its staff and collaborators (lawmakers, business leaders, scientists) have been advocating for the sciences, securing more funding and battling to keep the money the sciences already have. We spoke with Woolley to find out the struggles the field is facing and how to avoid dropping in rank.

Where do you see the world of medical research in today’s environment, and where it can get to with more advocacy and financing in the future?

Medical research today is a global enterprise, it is possible for anyone, anywhere to participate. … In a concrete way, we can achieve goals such as beating Alzheimer’s, conquering cancer … end the plague of diabetes and obesity and find a vaccine for HIV/AIDs. … All of those things are more than just possible, they are probable in our lifetimes. The downside is they won’t happen if science is forced to proceed at a snail’s pace and we turn off the promising young scientists who we are today discouraged heavily because we, collectively, have taken our eyes off the ball of sustaining and empowering support for science.

These days, the decision makers have a lot on their plate, and a lot of priorities to align with resources, but other countries with similar scenarios in front of them—coming out of a tough economic time and many things to think about, including an aging population—have decided to make a big commitment, a huge investment to science. … We are now starting to look at trends that indicated that the United States might not be the global leader in science and technology, medical research as soon as 2020.

[Other countries] aren’t just sitting by and waiting for things to happen in the United States. They’re taking a page out of the playbook that we used for 50 years to power up our economy based on science and technology, based on the knowledge economy, and they are putting it to work in their own nations.

You say the reasons the United States is in danger of dropping from top ranking is because the system is turning off scientists or those wanting to go into the sciences. Is this based on policies, funding or is it that generations coming forward aren’t looking at this as a field they want to go into? Or, is it a combination?

We’re confident policies and funding are just not empowering science right now and young people get that; they see it.

Not that many years ago NIH was able to fund almost a third of the new ideas [for projects in science] that came their way via the grant mechanism, sometimes contracts. Today, that percentage ranges between 10-15 percent, and sometimes has gone as low as 8 percent, depending on what kind of science is being proposed. Those are low odds. It’s almost a lottery. That is not something a bright young person in science is automatically willing to take on.  … It causes young people to look to other countries and many are going elsewhere … or they might decide to go in a different direction. … People, smart, young science-trained individuals, are almost desperately looking for other things to do.

What are your major short- and long-term goals for the next 25 years?

What we’re doing this year is something we do in election years, but we’re doing it with increased intensity in 2014.  We’re operating a voter education activity (Ask Your Candidates) that will, we hope, do a good job of educating people who are going to be making tough decisions in the primary elections and general election in November about who they want to support and vote for. And, we want research to be part of that conversation … in terms of making sure we have a future of sustained medical progress based on research, based on supporting the people who do science.

Looking further ahead, we will continue to urge, through all different kinds of advocacy efforts, urge our Congress to address tax and entitlement reform and get the nation out of this kind of quicksand effect of pulling us down. We’ve got to get realistic about restructuring some of the major drivers that policy makers have access to in our economy. We will continue to push for them so we can be sure that public/private partnerships are developed more and more robustly. There’s more new startups, there’s more push for an economy … that’ll mean more jobs, even better times for Northern Virginia, but also assure nationwide that there are more and more pockets of commitment and excellence for science.

Are we at the point where we can stop dropping in rank? What is it going to take to do that?

There is still time, yes, we can stop this. But we need to do things that themselves support science and innovation, but we also need to broadcast that we’re doing them. In the recent period of time, maybe as much as two years, there’s been a lot of pulling back of investment and hoarding of cash by industry leaders and moving elsewhere because of the atmosphere of inability to predict what’s going to go on with the United States. … [A] very good thing has happened in recent months, weeks even, that there’s been a movement in the Congress back to so called regular order, and we’re seeing some actual bipartisan  decisions—not game playing, not calling people names—actual action.

With the policies and funding practices we had in place before talk of the U.S. not being number one in science and research, are we going to be fine if we revert back to how it was initially set up with this progression in the sciences, or do we need to go beyond that in today’s world?

About 15 years ago there was another time of economic constraint and calls for slashing government funding, during the Newt Gingrich Contract for America period. There were calls for significantly cutting science budgets—double digits and more. And what happened—of course, it was nowhere near as strident, and the economic situation was nowhere near as bad as it has been in more recent years, but it was bad in ’96—was the research community, and [Research! America] was very much a part of this, we coalesced together, and in various ways there was a lot of different strategies. … We worked toward avoiding any of those cuts … worked toward doubling the NIH budget and other science agencies fared extremely well during the same period (1999-2003). I think that can happen again, and should. And if more than that is possible, that is even better. But the science is certainly capable of it. It’s not as though the money would be thrown down a rat hole. The capacity, the promise in science is poised to take off but it won’t stay poised for long. We’ve probably got a couple of years window there where it’s just going to be too much where people’s labs have been closed, to be sustained on other funding on their institution; that runs out. It’s going to be too much for a young scientists to hang in there. We don’t have much time, couple of years I’d say, to do something significant and broadcast that we’re going to keep doing significant things. It takes both, not a one-time fix.

What will happen to the world of research and science in the United States come 2020 if we do drop?

Hard to say. There are some analogies, they are not exact but there was a time where the United States was the undisputed global leader in automobile manufacturing and we took our eye off the ball with that one. If you go back and look at policies and so forth, we took it for granted and thought it would continue forever.  We know today there is still a robust auto industry in this country. It was on its knees for a while, but there is also a robust auto industry in many other parts of the world, and that is more of the model of what will happen. Same thing is true of consumer electronics. Which was getting taken for granted in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then, oops!, things changed and we weren’t the only game in town anymore. But it’s not as if it stopped auto manufacturing, consumer electronics or stopped innovating in electronics or automobiles.

It won’t be the end of the world, there is still going to be medical research. And we want other countries to thrive, why not? Of course. It is good competitively, too, but the truth is when you lose that unquestioned, global leadership, you lose having a big mindshare and a lot of influence, and that comes out in winning Nobel Prizes and so forth; it’s a point of pride for Americans. You lose that our universities are the undisputed best, pride in realities. You lose, importantly—and this is really important—the ability to literally capitalize on discovery in your country, to build new businesses, to drive that way. What if Google or Microsoft were founded in another country? Think of all the jobs, all the economic power that would have been lost in this country. Same thing with the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.

Twenty-five years ago you chose to locate in Northern Virginia. How has  your location helped with advocacy?

It has proven to be terrific for so many reasons: access to the Capitol, Regan National Airport and to all the associations that we have connections to in Alexandria and Northern Virginia. But the big thing that has changed over those 25 years is that Northern Virginia has become a real hotbed for science and technology. There is a real energy and excitement level that you feel in those hotbeds of science and innovation. Northern Virginia feels like that now.  And what Northern Virginia has that those other very strong and important technology clusters don’t is the access to the Capitol, to policymakers, national media and political media, and that is just an extra special advantage.

(March 2014)