Update: I highly recommend reading the excellent PCAST report, "Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise." It places many of my thoughts below in a broad perspective.
After the United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, otherwise known as the Supercommittee, failed to create an acceptable bipartisan proposal for addressing the U.S. Federal budget deficit, both parties decided to defer further discussions until after the November 2012 elections. As the January 2013 deadline for automatic, across the board cuts is now drawing ever nearer, the discussions have begun again, albeit with accusations and finger pointing on both sides of the political aisle.
Amidst this backdrop, all of us in the research community have been sounding the alarm regarding the consequences of the research cuts that sequestration would necessitate. There is no doubt that substantial cuts to basic research would adversely affect the long-term future of U.S. innovation and global competitiveness, upset already strained university budgets, damage current research projects in a wide range of disciplines, and disrupt the lives of thousands of faculty, post-doctoral associates and students.
That said, is important to acknowledge that we in research are a special interest group, though one whose interests are vital to the future. I realize that some would take umbrage at my description of research as a special interest group, but in the political lexicon, we are, just as are health care and environmental protection. Unless one accepts the realpolitik of budget exigencies and the conflicting goals and objectives of large, disparate multiparty negotiations, the research community will neither be effective in making the case nor realistic in managing the process and likely outcomes.
One cannot simply cry, "This is good, or this is bad," one must make cogent arguments about why certain choices yield differential benefits to the budget negotiators' positions and policies and why those choices are better than other ones. (See Being Bilingual: Speaking Technology and Policy.) Remember, there are far more good ideas than there are resources, and this is equally true in government and science.
Despite the political polarization in Washington, I still believe a budget compromise will emerge. It will not be perfect – such is the very nature of compromise, but I suspect it will include some acceptable combination of revenue increases and budget reductions. Despite its politicization, there is still broad recognition of the importance of basic research; I believe it will fare relatively well when the Sturm und Drang are done.
However, with research proposal success rates plummeting and Hobbesian choices between research infrastructure and investigator support now necessary, we face major challenges. In the apocryphal phrasing of Ernst Rutherford, "We have no money. We must think."
Thinking will undoubtedly mean questioning some perceived verities and deeply held beliefs. NIH R01 awards will no longer be de facto expectations for promotion and tenure. Research infrastructure sharing across institutions may well become the norm, and not just for large-scale instrumentation. Cross-disciplinary tradeoffs about relative investment will become even more pressing. Industry-academic partnerships will rise in importance, as we develop more effective and mutually beneficial industrial collaboration frameworks. However, these industry partnerships will not a surrogate for federal funding of basic research.
Whatever the outcomes, by revisiting some of our assumptions, we can create more free energy in the research system and dedicate precious resources to new and emerging opportunities. I am confident that many of these new opportunities lie at our disciplinary interstices, and hybridization and cross-fertilization can yield new insights and outcomes. More broadly, the coupling of the arts and humanities with public policy, science and engineering, and biomedicine can be transformative. This is consilience in its highest form. However, we must think.
Take heart and keep the faith. The future can be and will be bright – if we make it so.