Still, although support for research at the higher-education level diminished, the focus on K-12 STEM education remained strong. In 2015, the Department of Education invested hundreds of millions in programs aimed at enlisting stronger math and science teachers, implementing best practices in STEM teaching, and motivating disadvantaged and minority students to pursue degrees in STEM fields. What happens if those students attempt to enroll in financially beleaguered research universities isn’t yet clear. Research opportunities in U.S. higher education remain inconsistent, which could be softening the country’s edge.
The cuts have raised concerns among university officials about the prospects for innovation in the United States. Jennifer Poulakidas, the vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), said that in many cases, schools opted to deplete their “rainy day funds” to bridge deficits in funding and maintain ongoing research. The 2016 budget hike doesn’t necessarily mean the return of previously jettisoned grants, she said, but it does bode well for “more opportunities for good science to be funded.”
Some institutions have, however, already seen opportunities for young researchers curtailed by the cuts, as reported at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where the typical age at which scientists are awarded their first grant has risen substantially and competition for grants is increasingly fierce. The sequester also translated into schools accepting fewer graduate students than they had in the past. And when the research dollars that support them disappear, and funding for science fails to keep up with inflation, Poulakidas said, “researchers get poached by universities in other countries.”
Indeed, on a global scale, competing nations are upping their spending on research and development. In fact, China is anticipated to outdo the U.S. in this field by 2020, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. “They see how good that model has been for the U.S., how that has grown our economy and made us strong in all kinds of sectors,” Poulakidas said. “We’re behind, because we’re not doing what we ought to be doing compared to our prior investments in science, research, and higher education.”
If other countries continue to outspend the United States, the American scientific community will find itself in what the APLU and other scientific organizations are calling an innovation deficit. And diminished research and development at the university level, they say, has broad implications for other industries, including national security and health care.
Earlier this year, deans from 18 medical schools, including the University of Pittsburgh and Duke University, wrote an editorial in Science Translational Medicine explaining the consequences of this international threat. “Academic medical centers remain both the major care site and the option of last resort for the most complex and challenging patients,” they wrote, contributing to critical research as well as providing care to patients who lack health insurance. “Loss of funding ... will slow progress in our ability to address the health of our patients and lessen our contribution, through new knowledge and technology development, to the growth of the nation’s economy.”