Stagnant federal spending on R&D could lead to big problems later

Stagnant federal spending on R&D could lead to big problems later

Yoshi Kawaoka is known worldwide for his work on avian influenza viruses, the likes of which wiped out 40 million people in 1918. This talented UW-Madison researcher has also spent time studying strains of the Ebola virus, which has now found its way to the United States from West Africa, where thousands have died from its devastating effects.

Trouble is, Kawaoka’s Ebola research is largely in the past tense because federal funding for the project ran out just as some promising results were reported.

It’s a close-to-home example of how stagnant and even dwindling federal support for academic research – especially in the life sciences – can hamper society’s ability to address public health challenges.

Speaking in late August at a meeting of the Wisconsin Innovation Network in Madison, Kawaoka said he and his team had created a potential Ebola vaccine by extracting the gene that tells the active virus to multiply. Several promising tests were conducted with non-human primates. The experiments demonstrated the vaccine, when administered in two doses, is effective even against the most deadly Ebola strains.

That’s when the money ran out. Although some work continues in secured laboratories, Kawaoka could not proceed with tests to determine whether the vaccine regimen might work with humans. He described his case as an example of what can happen if federal dollars for research conducted at major universities continues down a start-and-stop path.

The surge in federal support for academic research and development that began at the dawn of the Space Age and accelerated in the 1990s and 2000s has slowed in recent years – and actually declined in 2012 for the first time since records were kept. The National Science Foundation has tracked academic R&D spending from all sources since 1953, and 2012 is the latest year for which complete records are available.

While increases in some years were smaller than others, Congress and the White House have generally viewed federal R&D investments as a bipartisan, national imperative. The support for such research has expanded in good times and bad, weathering recessions and conflict abroad.

Why has federal investment in academic R&D been a priority over the years? Because money spent on research has been viewed as intellectual “seed corn” that can be planted throughout the economy, helping to launch new ideas and companies while enhancing the public good.

Today, the decline in such investment is not only apparent in academic R&D spending by the federal government but in what Washington spends on its own research programs in agencies such as the National Institutes for Health, the NSF and 39 federal research centers.

Earlier this year, the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science called the recent trend in federal support for R&D “nothing short of seriously depressing.”

Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science, noted that federal R&D spending had declined by 15 percent since 2010. While acknowledging the need for balanced spending cuts in tight fiscal times, Leshner added: “Sadly, most of the solutions seem to be offered up on the discretionary side of the budget.”

The trend is worrisome for leaders in some of Wisconsin’s leading research institutions, which starts with the UW-Madison. In 2012, according to the NSF, UW-Madison ranked third among all U.S. universities in total academic R&D spending at $1.170 billion. Half of that investment ($581 million) came from federal sources.

The mix of federal R&D dollars was roughly the same at the Medical College of Wisconsin ($207 million in total spending, $125 million from federal sources) and the UW-Milwaukee ($62 million and $29 million).

“Federal research dollars are an investment in our nation’s economic future,” UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote recently. “Cutting these dollars in the short-run may seem easy, but the long-term effects are large and negative… If federal support for basic research declines, our opportunities for economic growth through innovation will decline.”

Have universities always spent federal R&D dollars in the most efficient way? No, but with private industry conducting less free-standing research and engaging in more in partnerships with universities, the prospects for more results-driven work are improved.

Is a vaccine for Ebola or another threat to public health just around the corner? We may never know if the money to help find the answers is never spent.

Recent articles by Tom Still

Tom Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and the Wisconsin Innovation Network. He can be reached by email at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of WTN Media LLC. WTN accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.