Last week, Congress passed yet another continuing resolution that could stifle innovation. Although continuing resolutions should be treated as a last resort, they have become standard practice over the last decade to avert government shutdowns. For the U.S. research enterprise, which depends on predictable funding, the stop-and-go pace of government funding has long-lasting consequences, creating uncertainty for researchers, hindering economic growth, and threatening our position as a global leader.
Congress has once again failed to pass a full appropriations bill, meaning federal agencies will receive the same level of funding from last year’s appropriations bills through mid-February. This freeze on spending levels effectively shrinks the amount of money that agencies have to work with because purchasing power declines over time. Supply chain issues, inflation, and the rising expense of conducting research mean that the same level of funding for important projects does not go nearly as far, and new projects may not even commence. According to the Office of Management and Budget , another continuing resolution would delay key research the United States needs to prepare for future challenges and keep our nation safe and ahead of competitors.
While Congress fails to pass full-year appropriations for federal research agencies, America’s global competitors are making consistent and robust financial commitments to science and are gaining on our position as a leader in research and development. In fact, China increased its national investment in research and development to 10.3% last year and will increase its spending by more than 7% per year through 2025. If both countries continue to follow their respective spending trends, China is forecast to surpass the U.S. in research and development spending in less than four years . In the decades to come, our ability to innovate and push the boundaries of discovery is essential to set us apart from our global competitors and strengthen the American research enterprise, which generates billions of dollars in wages, taxes, and increases to the national GDP, as highlighted in the Science Coalition’s latest Sparking Economic Growth report .
The widening gap between the U.S. and our global competitors when it comes to predictable and robust funding for research and development also chips away at our innovation capacity. Amid new global challenges, the innovations resulting from strong government-university partnerships have tremendous national security benefits. Take for instance the critical work being conducted at Johns Hopkins University’s Extreme Materials Institute, where engineers are using artificial intelligence to improve the design of protection materials for the Army. At the Pennsylvania State University, researchers are collaborating with other leading institutions, including the University of California, Riverside, the University of California, Davis, and Indiana University, to develop a rigorous science of decision-making in cyberspace to detect risks, predict attacks, and achieve maximal mission success rates at the lowest resource cost. These projects, including those sponsored by the Department of Defense’s Army Research Laboratory, and many like them are at risk without funding from Congress.
Congress does not have to continue to operate like this. In fact, both the House and the Senate have proposed funding increases for fiscal year 2022 of more than 10% for federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation. The NSF funds innovative projects crucial to maintaining U.S. competitiveness. For example, researchers at the University of Washington are using NSF funds to tap into the potential of nuclear fusion as a clean, safe, and abundant energy source, particularly as the threat of depleting fossil fuels increasingly looms. However, the proposed funding increases still fall short of President Joe Biden’s budget request and will not be enacted at all if Congress is unable to reach an agreement on a full appropriations bill. Without these investments, our nation’s research enterprise will suffer.
Another federal funding patch inhibits our research agencies from thriving. While a long-term continuing resolution would be devastating for our nation’s research enterprise, even a shorter stopgap measure will severely hinder U.S. competitiveness, economic growth, and defense readiness. Congress needs to pass a full appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022 to drive innovation in the 21st century and keep a grip on the position of the U.S. as a global leader.