Seat belts, GPS, touch screens, MRI’s, biotechnology, Google—rare is the day when you don’t use inventions that U.S. research universities had a strong hand in developing. It’s no wonder that economists credit these and other technological advances with being responsible for as much as 50 percent of U.S. economic growth in the second half of the 20th century. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow put it, “technology remains the dominant engine of growth, with human capital investment in second place.”
All of this, and the cost each year of the federal investment for university and other basic research, its primary source of funding, is less than 2 percent of the budget. But even that small investment is threatened by the budget stalemate in Washington.
Our research universities are still indisputably the world’s best, and America remains the unquestioned global leader in the creation of ideas and inventions, and in technology. Other nations, however, particularly China and India, are pouring resources into new, American-style universities. They seek to imitate our success, and they are beginning to do so at a fastclip.
For us to maintain the best research universities in the world, we need to sustain the nation’s investments in research and higher education. But our states are disinvesting in public universities. And at the national level, the federal government is about to commit an utterly foolish act—mindless across-the-board budget cuts, scheduled for Jan. 2, 2013, that will directly affect our nation’s innovative capacity. According to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a non-partisan tech-policy think tank, these cuts would reduce research funding by so much that the resulting loss of innovation is projected to lower GDP by hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade.
Only Congress and the President can stop this from happening. Washington clearly needs to cut deficits and stabilize the national debt, but as former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine has said, when you need to trim weight from an airplane, you don’t remove the engines. Cutting funding for research universities will do little to balance the budget in the short term and will be calamitous over the long haul.
Our competitors are thinking long-term, and so must we. If we act wisely, our universities can continue to produce the great discoveries and innovation that will help America lead the world into the future as it has led in the past.
Rawlings is president of the Association of American Universities and former president of Cornell University.