Government-backed Scientific Research Helps America Compete in Tomorrow’s Global Economy

By U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah
February/March 2012

Every day for the past 10 years, human beings in the international space station have been orbiting our world, conducting NASA-supported research on the parameters of the universe, innovative food production, human biology and thousands of other experiments that will make our lives better in the 21st century.

At the bottom of our planet, on the icy landscape of Antarctica, a thousand scientists financed by the National Science Foundation are searching for answers to climate change and extreme survival.

At the repurposed Philadelphia Navy Yard, the Greater Philadelphia Innovation Cluster, a Department of Energy Innovation Hub, has created a place where scientists and engineers from a cross section of disciplines will work together to investigate new ways to make buildings more energy efficient. This collaborative environment will reduce the time it takes to turn a new idea into a new product and will help the nation to adopt a more sustainable energy mix.

When weather-related disasters struck across the nation in 2011, climatologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) were on the front lines providing an accurate and timely portrait of the storm systems. Every day, NOAA researchers help the world to gain a better understanding of the effects of human-induced climate change on the planet’s weather patterns. NOAA’s efforts are resulting in a better understanding of climate change’s effects on oceans and biodiversity, longer storm warning lead times and new knowledge about our changing climate.

Everywhere we look, big questions are being asked and far-reaching answers have been forthcoming from research sponsored and underwritten by you and me and by every American. We all benefit from this multi-billion-dollar initiative that is, in aggregate, vital to our survival as a global community and critical to our advancement as Americans.

Scientific research sponsored or conducted by the United States government has benefited all of us. Every project seeks to unlock a door, every scientist is impelled by the need to know more.

Yet this imperative of our government is all too often taken for granted, denied vital resources or even challenged politically. The effort to protect and promote scientific research is never-ending and never easy in the halls of Congress.

Make no mistake, we are in global competition – with the European Union, China, India, Russia and other nations that don’t flinch on their commitment to basic science. Singapore, with a population of less than five million, invests $6 billion in research, about the same as our government funds through the National Science Foundation. China spares no expense as it reaches into space.

We must not cede our leadership because for more than half a century, science has been the driver of the American economy. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science, as the largest funder of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, has helped the nation accomplish its missions in energy security, national security, environmental restoration, and discovery-driven science.  And the National Science Foundation has consistently fulfilled its unique federal role, providing support for university research that has made America’s higher education the envy of the world.

President Obama has articulated a national imperative to honor science and “win the future” through innovation and manufacturing. Scientific research is key to this bright tomorrow that the President describes as attainable – but not automatic. Our will is being tested every day.

One area where our government can do more – and do it better – is neuroscience. We are on the cusp of advances in our understanding of the brain. The human brain regulates breathing, speech, and rational thought. Every aspect of our lives is dictated by synapses and responses to stimuli, yet we are only just beginning to understand the functions of this enigmatic organ. Neuroscience research can provide insight into learning and brain repair. It can help us to alleviate and prevent injury and illness, and it can help us to understand behaviors like criminality and addiction. I am committed to neuroscience and the possibilities it offers because of its interdisciplinary nature – joining the biomedical and physical sciences – and because of the potential to dramatically improve individual lives and society.

That is why I proposed and won enactment in Congress in November 2011 for a breakthrough initiative that declares neuroscience research a federal priority and calls on the White House, through the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), to establish an interagency working group to coordinate Federal investments in neuroscience research. This coordinated priority – signed into law by President Obama – holds the promise of additional resources going forward.

The investments we make now in neuroscience research will have a multi-fold payoff, both in terms of the quality of life of Americans and reductions in healthcare costs. A coordinated federal policy on neuroscience is long overdue. The federal science and research agencies are best positioned to advance this vital effort, but they must work together. This directive from the Congress will go a long way to make it happen.

Neuroscience research is mainly supported by the National Institutes of Health, but also by NSF, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Defense, and other Federal agencies. Much of this cutting-edge research is under way in my home district. I have been privileged to visit labs and meet an impressive roster of physicians and scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Monell Chemical Senses Center and Drexel University – all located within a few blocks of each other in West Philadelphia’s remarkable University City complex.

Neuroscience is not, of course, the only vital area of research with government input. The U.S. government has long been engaged in breakthrough research at National Laboratories that include Sandia and Los Alamos in New Mexico and Fermi outside Chicago, all of which I have visited.

As men and women of science lead us to compete on the world stage, we are not shadowboxing. They are engaged in research that cannot be done on the cheap, and it can’t be done piecemeal. Our national imperative is to support our heroes of the laboratory. This is the challenge of the 21st century.

Congressman Chaka Fattah (PA-02) is the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies, which sets more than $50 billion in spending priorities for the NSF, NASA, the NOAA, and the Departments of Commerce and Justice. He is also a member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water. The native Philadelphian holds a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania Fels Center of Government. He is nationally recognized as an innovator in educational reform and is architect of GEAR UP, Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, the nation’s most successful college readiness program for low-income students. Fattah is co-chair of the Congressional Urban Caucus. He is in his ninth term representing portions of Philadelphia and Montgomery County and served 12 years as a state legislator prior to election to Congress in 1994.

US Rep Chaka Fattah

U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah