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Views: Diminishing the innovation deficit

Published: Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Much has been written about the national budget deficit, and for good reason. But America is facing another shortfall that’s just as serious: an innovation deficit.

As Congress returns to work and negotiates spending levels for the next two years, one priority should be at the top of their list: increased funding for biomedical research.

This is something Washington does really well. Ninety percent of the money supporting basic research in this country funnels through the National Institutes of Health, and many Americans live longer and stronger lives because of its work.

The impact is practical as well as moral. Federal grants boost the economy, create new jobs and products and reduce time lost to debilitating illness.

And yet in a profoundly misguided policy, NIH funding has stayed flat for a decade; factor in inflation, and purchasing power has actually declined. Moreover, the automatic spending cuts known as a “sequester” sliced another 5 percent from the budget last year.

As a result, only about 15 percent of all grant applications are now being approved, which is half the rate of a decade ago. Labs are closing, layoffs are mounting, graduate stipends and equipment purchases are declining. NIH director Francis Collins tells us that he lives in fear of turning away a scientist who might win the Nobel Prize someday.

Meanwhile, foreign competitors such as China and Japan are boosting their outlays.

The widening “innovation deficit” also discourages young scientists who wonder whether they will have the resources in the future to build a career. We admit to a bias -- we have relatives whose research depends heavily on NIH funding -- but that also gives us a personal insight into the crisis.

The problem is compounded by another incredibly stupid government policy: strict limits on visas for foreign-born researchers who studied at American universities but cannot get permission to stay and work here. Countries like Canada and Germany are wooing them ardently, deepening our “innovation deficit.”

All this progress could be endangered by the fiscal shortsightedness that seems to have infected much of Congress.

Good investments turn profits and pay dividends. Funding biomedical research and closing the innovation deficit is just such an investment: the highest, best use of hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

• Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.

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