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Scientists will Build the Bridge to the 21st Century

By Phil Gramm, United States Senator

grammPresident Clinton has talked a lot about building a bridge to the 21st Century and, our philosophical differences aside, I want to help him build that bridge with Bucky Balls.

"Bucky Ball" is the nickname for Buckminsterfullerene, a molecular form of carbon that was discovered by Professors Robert F. Curl and Richard E. Smalley of Rice University in Houston. They won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this discovery.

Bucky Balls were named after R. Buckminster Fuller, the architect famous for his geodesic domes, because this new molecule closely resembles his designs. The silly nickname notwithstanding, their discovery was a breakthrough that will have scientific and practical applications across a wide variety of fields, from electrical conduction to the delivery of medicine into the human body.

Bucky Balls are impervious to radiation and chemical destruction, and can be joined to form tubes 10,000 times smaller than a human hair, yet 100 times stronger than steel. Use of the molecules is expected to establish a whole new class of materials for the construction of many products, from airplane wings and automobile bodies to clothing and packaging material.

This is old news to those of you involved in molecular physics, but think about it this way: Because we encourage the kind of thinking that leads to discoveries like Bucky Balls, the United States stands as the economic, military, and intellectual leader of the world. We achieved this not by accident, but by a common, unswerving conviction that America's future was something to plan for, invest in and celebrate. Using the products of imagination and hard work, from Winchester rifles and steam engines to space shuttles, Americans built a nation. We're still building, but for what we need in the next century, we're going have to turn to people like Curl and Smalley and you to give us materials like Bucky Balls, and the government has a role to play.

Unfortunately, over the past 30 years, American government has set different priorities. In 1965, 5.7 percent of the federal budget was spent on non-defense research and development. Thirty-two years later in 1997, that figure has dropped by two-thirds. We spend a lot more money than we did in 1965, but we spend it on social programs, not science. We invest in the next elections, not the next generation.

The United States is under-investing in basic research. That's right. The author of the landmark deficit reduction legislation known today as Gramm-Rudman supports the idea of the government spending more money on something.

Not only do I support the idea of spending more on science and technology, I have introduced two pieces of legislation which would help achieve that goal. The first bill is the National Research Investment Act, which would double the amount spent by the federal government on basic research in science and medicine over 10 years from $32.5 billion in 1997 to $65 billion in 2007. The second, the National Research and Development Act, would permanently extend the research and development tax credit.

If we as a country do not restore the high priority once afforded science and technology in the federal budget and increase federal investment in research, it will be impossible to maintain the United States' position as the technological leader of the world. Since 1970, Japan and Germany have spent a larger share of their national income on research and development than we have. We can no longer afford to fall behind. Expanding the nation's commitment to research in basic science and medicine is a critically important investment in the future of our nation. It means saying no to many programs with strong political support, but by expanding research we are saying yes to jobs and prosperity in the future.

The R&D tax credit was originally enacted as a part of President Reagan's Economic Recovery and Tax Act of 1981 in order to encourage greater private sector investment in research and development, and its benefits have been enormous. Studies show that each dollar of the credit yields up to two dollars in additional private R&D spending. Furthermore, the rate of return from R&D spending to society as a whole is estimated to be as high as 60 percent. Since its creation in 1981, the credit has been extended seven times, and it is currently set to expire on May 31, 1997.

Given that the ratio of R&D spending to output rose 40% in the 1980s when the R&D credit was in effect for the longest period of time, it is not unreasonable to expect that the benefits of the credit will only be enhanced if it is extended permanently. A permanent extension of the R&D credit would encourage companies to take on additional research and development projects by guaranteeing that the credit will be in effect during these long-term initiatives. In Texas alone, the average high- tech job pays $47,019 a year -almost $20,000 more per year than the average private sector salary of $27,147.

The need to make the credit permanent is only further highlighted by the fact that in 1996, for the first time in its history, the R&D credit was allowed to lapse between July 1, 1995 and July 1, 1996. Haphazard and unpredictable temporary extensions of the credit, combined with this recent lapse, have understandably left the research community in a state of confusion and uncertainty. Do any of us doubt that new home sales would drop if prospective buyers thought the mortgage interest deduction might disappear 5 years into their 20 year mortgage?

Businesses cannot and do not ignore the possibility of future gaps in the R&D credit, and will be forced to scale back new long-term projects if they cannot be certain that the credit will continue. We should permanently extend the R&D tax credit to permanently remove this unnecessary barrier to long-term research and development which has been created by the stop-and-go extension process.

I should also point out that the R&D credit has a long history of bipartisan support. The president has signaled his support for the credit, not only by signing last year's extension as a part of the Small Business Job Protection Act, but also by proposing a further extension as a part of his 1998 Budget. Unfortunately, his proposal follows the ill-advised precedent of merely temporarily extending the credit.

I believe that if we want the 21st century to be a place worth building a bridge to, and if we want to maintain the United States' position as the leader of the free world, then we need to restore the prominence that basic research once had in the federal budget. Our parents' generation fought two world wars, overcame some of the worst economic conditions in the history our nation, and yet still managed to invest in America's future. We have an obligation to do at least an equal amount for our children and grandchildren.

Over the past 30 years, we have not lived up to this obligation, but it isn't too late to change our minds. The discovery of Bucky Balls is a testament to the resilience of the American scientific community. I believe that if we once again give scientists and researchers the support that they deserve, if we make the same commitment to our children's future that our parents made to ours, then the 21st century promises to be one of unlimited potential.

For those of you who want to help, you should contact your Senators and urge them to cosponsor these important bills. The National Research Investment Act is S. 124, and the National Research and Development Act is S. 355. In the weeks since I introduced S. 124, I have received dozens of letters of support from universities and organizations (including, of course, the American Physical Society), representing hundreds of thousands of scientists and researchers from across the country. Let your elected officials know you believe it is vital we reverse the disturbing trend toward shortchanging critical investments in research.

America is a great and powerful country for two reasons. First, we have had more freedom and opportunity than any other people who have ever lived and with that freedom and opportunity people like us have been able to achieve extraordinary things. Secondly, we have invested more in science than any people in history. Science has given us the tools and freedom has allowed us to put them to work. If we preserve freedom and invest in science, there is no limit on the future of the American people.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin