A singular success of American science is the partnership between the federal government and research universities. It is a hard-won partnership that was generations in the making. The federal government has been a major player in the funding of agricultural research at universities since the Morrill Act of 1862. However, federal funding for research in other scientific disciplines was largely limited to governmental agencies, until after World War II. There were many reasons for this, but one of the most important was that university-based scientists wanted control over the scientific agendas in their fields and were concerned this control would be lost with government funding of research.
World War II hastened the end of the stand-off between scientists and the federal government. The war demonstrated the importance of scientific research and new technologies to national security and led to Vannevar Bush’s July 1945 report to President Truman, “Science—The Endless Frontier”. In this report, which eventually led to the creation of the National Science Foundation, Bush emphasized the importance of basic research, the need for government support of research, and the necessity of combining research with the training of scientists.
The model for the allocation of funds that was eventually decided upon was support of specific projects through competitive peer review. Under this model, university scientists compete for funding of projects they propose, with peer review playing a central role. The funding to support the projects includes both the direct costs necessary to carry out the research, and the indirect costs that compensate universities for their investment in the buildings, the laboratories, and the personnel essential for support of the research enterprise.
The university-based research model has been a spectacular success, which has not only made American science the benchmark for the world, but the American university system the gold standard for the world. It has enjoyed bipartisan support in the Congress and the White House for more than 60 years, and has been seen as worthy of protection and greater investment even in the leanest budget years.
The American commitment to science is now being threatened by a federal budget proposal that would cut funding to the National Institutes of Health by 18%, paid for in part by reductions in overhead payments to universities. Although the details of the budget proposal will not be known until May of this year, the cuts to NIH, as well as those to the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the U.S. Geological Survey, signal a retreat from investment in science for which there is no parallel in the history of the United States.
It is incumbent on universities and their scientists to become involved in the effort to turn back this budget proposal. Prosperity, health, and security in the United States has been built on scientific advances, innovations, and new understanding. The stories of our successes need to be better told, and we must be willing to be the storytellers.
As we come together to tell these stories, we should welcome into our circle our colleagues from the Humanities and the Arts, who, too, have powerful stories of discovery and enlightenment to tell and who, too, are in danger of losing, not just some, but all of the federal support for their fields.
With all best wishes,