Keeping a Competitive Edge to Benefit Humanity

Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier and Dr. Jennifer Doudna are honored with the 2017 Japan Prize for their work with CRISPR Cas-9

Americans have historically been among the 20th Century’s leading innovators. Indeed, Americans feel that innovation, the lifeblood of U.S. industry, is a unique aspect of their national character. However, right now, the initiative in innovation has shifted overseas, and the outcome may be that societies all over the world are deprived of the example and competitive spur traditionally provided by U.S. innovation.

The American people believe in innovation. Last year, Research! America found an overwhelming majority of Americans favor government support for basic research; yet, since 2011, Federal R&D funding has experienced the longest multi-year drop since tracking of data began. Federal fellowships and research grants, essential in developing the next generation of scientists and engineers, are being awarded at a 15-year low.

It’s critical that this be addressed — monetarily and within the culture — to ensure continued competitiveness for American industry. But, even more critical is the role American innovation plays in serving humanity: U.S. research projects have inspired researchers globally, and the fruits of U.S. research have made the world a better place for people everywhere.

That could change. No nation holds a monopoly on innovation, and while R&D spending declines in the U.S., it rises nearly everywhere else. According to the OECD Science, Technology and Industry Outlook, 2014, BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) significantly outspends the U.S. by percentage of GDP. BRICs, Japan and Taiwan are among the nations that may have pushed the U.S. from its seat as the world’s research leader. Proof of this shift is evident in the fact that, since 2011, the majority of U.S. patents have been awarded overseas. Last year, the U.S. Patent office logged the highest percentage EVER of patents awarded to foreign innovators.

That’s an incredible loss of initiative, considering the world-changing work of American companies, labs and research universities. The fruits of their programs positioned the U.S. as the world’s innovation leader for decades. That work continues today, and it’s in America’s and humanity’s shared interest for the U.S. to fully support it.

Dr. Timothy J. Collier of Michigan State University and Dr. Jeffrey Kordower of Rush University — recently awarded a National Institutes of Health grant — investigate the ability of the antidepressant nortriptyline to delay progression of Parkinson’s disease. The work of Professor Emmanuelle Charpentier at Berlin’s Max Planck Institute, and her American colleague Dr. Jennifer Doudna at U. Cal. Berkley, identifying Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) was named Science magazine’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year and is being honored by the Japan Prize this April: through modified DNA replication, CRISPR could be used to build tissue-based cancer treatments.

There are hundreds of additional examples. Inventions such as the iPhone, Google’s search, facial recognition software, transistors, the Internet, plastics and the computer itself, as well as discoveries including greenhouse gas impacts, the ozone hole and genetic evolution, were all fostered by American research. Countless breakthroughs have improved our lives and laid the foundation for industrial success, making a long-term national strategy to support research and students imperative. And, that innovation success has raised all boats, providing benefits to people worldwide, and competitive markers for scientists and technologists the world over to emulate and surpass.

While the problem seems daunting, the solution is clear. All nations need to invest in their brightest young minds and support their R&D programs.

Support for research takes many forms. Money counts, but support in the form of prizes and honors for breakthrough discoveries and unique minds is critical. Social honors and cultural recognition are also critically important, and the media can and must do its part to cut through the detritus of ever-shifting popular culture news to draw attention to those who are making incredibly important discoveries that impact our lives and competitively drive business.

If we fail to showcase innovation and elevate those who are changing the course of science and technology, we risk losing their discoveries. We find ourselves underappreciated by lawmakers, underfunded, and handing the initiative to competitors. That must be quickly addressed by the press, the public, American business and lawmakers— who must avoid the economic and humanitarian danger, and change course to restore funding and instill a deeper appreciation of science and research in the culture.

This is absolutely crucial to U.S. innovation, and the effort can’t be piecemeal. It’s going to require a coordinated effort involving government, higher education and the private sector to promote research and development. Acting together to guarantee this fundamental, common good is essential. Supporting research will establish U.S. industry’s next generation of leaders and innovators, and that is critical for the continued good, not only of the country, but to the well-being of humanity and the planet.