There’s one avenue with proven success that isn’t talked about enough to help the nation’s economic recovery. Just as scientific research has been instrumental in addressing the health and social aspects of the pandemic – especially with regard to the rapid development of vaccines – it can also reinvigorate the economy and advance U.S. competitiveness. The American research enterprise supports economic growth at every level – from local communities to the national supply chain. With support from Congress for our federal research agencies, it can rejuvenate stalled sectors while driving long-term innovation across industries.
A new report from The Science Coalition again proves that economic growth and federal investment in fundamental research go hand-in-hand. In fact, Sparking Economic Growth, which highlights companies that trace their roots to federal investment in fundamental research, found 53 of these spinoff companies contributed more than $1.3 billion in GDP across all 50 states between 2015 and 2019 and supported nearly 100,000 jobs. If this is a microcosm of the total fiscal impact resulting from U.S. research activity, we are talking about a force with the potential to significantly improve our current economic trajectory.
Fundamental research is ground zero for scientific discovery, providing the knowledge base from which future innovations are seeded. However, it does not result in immediate tangible outcomes and often requires a long timeline, so federal research agencies are essential partners with colleges and universities in funding new projects and keeping others going. Congress annually determines how federal appropriations are allocated among research agencies, who in turn use that investment to decide which projects to finance – a process which effectively determines the scope and agenda for American science.
Congressional support for fundamental research can help or hinder scientific progress years down the line. The pandemic has made it more evident than ever that research, and its economic benefits, are essential federal investments. In 2018, the federal government’s $131 billion investment in R&D resulted in 445,800 direct American jobs and research funds support a 560,000-strong workforce. Those research projects that grow into spinoff companies provide benefits far beyond the states in which they operate, creating jobs and supporting communities throughout their supply chains.
Locus Biosciences, a spinoff company out of North Carolina State University, is a prime example. The company’s foundational research on therapies to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections using CRISPR technology began on campus, supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Department of Agriculture. Six years later, Locus Biosciences employs a 39-person staff and supports 647 related jobs.
A company’s employee count is only one measure of its economic punch. While Bionet Sonar has eight employees, it has contributed $5.9 million to the country’s GDP since 2016. Born from fundamental research at Northeastern University and backed by investments from NSF and the Department of Defense, Bionet is developing technologically advanced medical implants that are safer for the wearer and less vulnerable to hacks. Without that initial federal investment, the company says, “Bionet would not exist.”
Federal research agencies have a knack for envisioning a future we cannot imagine, providing the resources to bring it to life. That’s exactly the case for Orchard Therapeutics, which developed a first-of-its-kind gene therapy for rare, inherited disorders. Before Orchard, these treatments were complex or high risk. Since its NIH-funded inception at UCLA, Orchard has grown to 252 employees, supports a supply chain of over 4,700 jobs, and contributed $284.5 million to U.S. GDP.
Students, post-graduates, and early-career researchers – the next generation of founders and employees – are facing a new reality when it comes to the viability of STEM careers. Every young researcher has something to offer – and we need them for meaningful economic recovery.
It’s incumbent upon our lawmakers to provide robust increases in federal research appropriations year over year, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. The seeds of economic growth are planted when federal research agencies can sustain long-term initiatives and pursue new avenues of discovery, not when they are forced to use new monies to cover existing grants. The sooner lawmakers get to work the better. No doubt, the fundamental research they are counting on for economic healing has already begun.