Eating Our Scientific Seed Corn

The Congress, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to cut NSF funding and not let NIH funding keep pace with inflation. Meanwhile, there was plenty of money for pork-barrel projects (mostly in red states). This is so monstrously stupid. Basic research is what leads to new technologies. Here’s some examples:

1) The Internet.
2) Restriction enzymes. Restriction enzymes are proteinz that cut DNA at specific locations (e.g., ATTGCC becomes ATT & GCC) and are an essential and basic part of any molecular biologist’s tool kit. For example, the gene for human insulin was moved into E. coli with restriction enzymes, allowing the human insulin to be harvested and used by diabetics.
3) Computers.
4) Lasers. Played a porn DVD recently? It wouldn’t happen without laser technology.

One thing that you might notice about these examples: the basic technology advances used were discovered decades ago (although they’ve been miniaturized and improved since). Most “new technologies”, such as genome sequencing, are actually just combinations of pre-existing technologies. In the case of genome sequencing, the technologies used are PCR (1986), computers (~1950), and lasers.

We’ve been starving basic research since the Reagan era. While the flight of stem-cell research to the UK has garnered a lot of attention, the deeper systemic crisis is an absence of new technologies in the pipeline. In ten to twenty years, if we wonder why our GDP is stalling, it will be too late.

What’s even more absurd about the proposed cuts is that these cuts aren’t in “basic” research; instead, they are applied research (e.g., cancer genomics). This is just nuts.

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