Kentucky voices: Research improves society, our lives

Paul M. Bertsch, University of Kentucky agriculture professor, is with the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
Paul M. Bertsch, University of Kentucky agriculture professor, is with the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.

It's an exciting time of the year when the Nobel prizes are announced for remarkable scientific breakthroughs that ultimately advance the quality of lives for all U.S. citizens and, indeed, all members of the global community.

Many of us are mesmerized by the descriptions of the prize-winning research but have a difficult time understanding how these groundbreaking discoveries relate to our everyday lives.

For example, this year's prize in physics went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess for their remarkable discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by "dark energy," a poorly understood form of energy that, incidentally, constitutes approximately 75 percent of the universe.

Perhaps we can better relate to the discoveries by the Nobel laureates in physiology and medicine, Bruce Beutler, Jules Hoffmann and Ralph Steinman, that have led to an understanding of how our immune systems function. Or even by the Nobel laureate in chemistry, Dan Shechtman, whose radical finding about how atoms are packed in certain solids are being used to develop stronger steel, advanced alloys and coatings, and even novel medical devices.

While there might be no obvious immediate applications of the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, past research focused on unraveling the mysteries of matter, biological systems, the Earth and the universe have led to the development of such items as smaller, more powerful and energy-efficient computing devices that are now an integral part of our lives.

They have also led to advanced medical imaging devices commonly used in diagnosing diseases, advanced pharmaceuticals that we have become reliant upon, as well as safe and secure food and water supplies that most of us now take for granted.

As our elected leaders scrutinize the federal budget to find areas to cut, funding for research and development should not be in the mix. Numerous economic analyses demonstrate that investment in federal R&D pays back huge dividends to the economy, not to mention the enhancements in the quality of our lives that result.

In fact, an analysis by the objective, non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that as much as 50 percent of U.S. economic growth between 1950 and 1993 could be attributed to investments in basic R&D. There is widespread consensus that we cannot simply cut our way out of our deficits, but that our economy must grow in order for us to solve our fiscal challenges.

Advancing nations with high aspirations, such as China, are dramatically increasing their investment in R&D because they understand that the U.S. is the preeminent world economic power as a result of our past investments.

Cutting federal investments in R&D will undermine our future economic competitiveness and growth, as well as the quality of our lives and those of our children and grandchildren. There is a lot at stake.

Let your elected representatives know that you support growing our economy, providing new, high-paying job, and increasing the quality of our lives through sustained investment in R&D.