U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell has a golden opportunity to put scientific research on a path of reliable, robust funding as federal budget discussions begin following the release of President Barack Obama's fiscal year 2016 spending plan.
McConnell should aim to end automatic budget cuts — known as sequestration — which have been detrimental to science. Ending sequestration would enable agencies such as the Department of Energy's Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and NASA to fund cutting-edge research that impacts national security, health care, energy and education.
As a physics student at the University of Kentucky, I am greatly concerned about our nation's future as a global scientific leader and my place within it. I want the opportunity to develop life-saving technologies like the MRI, to stimulate advances in our society, or to discover something new and exciting.
I grew up in the small Northern Kentucky town of California, and I long to see the same big science opportunities in Kentucky as there are in the state of California.
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We must change if we want to keep local talent in Kentucky. Higher levels of science funding would create more research opportunities and entice STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates to stay in Kentucky. The certainty of reliable funding would go a long way in inspiring the next generation to pursue STEM careers and create high-paying jobs.
Hummingbird Nano Inc., a Lexington company that manufactures molded parts for the telecommunications, biotech, aerospace and other industries, is an example of how federally funded research leads to new industries and jobs.
The company was launched in 2012 based on scientific research conducted at the University of Kentucky and funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Education
But science funding must become a priority if we want more success stories. For more than a decade, U.S. science funding has declined, leading to fewer grants being awarded to students, project delays and research personnel layoffs.
I understand that the U.S. must cut back on spending to keep the nation's deficit from further ballooning, but we should be careful not to harm the seed corn of our economic future — scientific research.
Although the direct application of a scientific finding may not be evident at first, a later use of that finding may lead to advances only dreamed of a decade ago. Consider electromagnetic waves: mere curiosities when discovered, yet now they are used ubiquitously in our modern, technological world.
Without this discovery, we would be without a potent cancer treatment, iPhones or even GPS. Indeed, since World War II, science and technology have accounted for more than half of the nation's economic growth.
Moreover, the unforeseen benefits of science are akin to the exploration of the Western frontier. Scientists make the foray into the unfamiliar frontier of cutting-edge science. We may not yet know the outcome of that science, but like the frontier of old, there are often serendipitous discoveries that benefit all Americans.
Unfortunately, other nations, including China, Taiwan and Singapore, are doing a better job investing in research and development while the United States is maintaining only modest growth. According to the National Science Board's 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators report, the U.S. share of worldwide research and development fell from 37 percent in 2001 to 30 percent in 2011.
If we want to build a better America, we must make science a sincere national priority. That message was the clarion call of the 2005 National Academies of Science report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm." The report recommended the United States increase funding in scientific research and STEM education or risk the erosion of its global scientific leader status.
As I ponder my future, my hope is that McConnell and other members of Congress will support reliable, robust funding of science, so that our nation will continue to inspire the next generation of scientists, spur innovation, and foster economic growth.