Harvard’s Drew Faust on higher ed (8 min) and my own thoughts on Federal R&D investments in science…


I draw your attention to her concerns about the effect of the sequester on research. This is a key point. There has been a de facto partnership between the US government and America’s universities since the end of the Second World War. This partnership, initially put forward by FDR’s science advisor, Vannevar Bush in his essay, Science the Endless Frontier envisioned those Federal R&D investments serving as an engine to the US economy and a protector of the public health.  Central to the notion was the idea that Federal R&D investment in basic and applied science, channeled through America’s Universities would keep America strong and competitive. That notion has been empirically borne out over the years and is one of the reasons why the best of American Higher Ed remains in its leadership position, even under increasing global competition.
The effect of the Sequester has been to put that partnership at risk. I first got wind of what was happening on the ground this past summer when one of my colleagues at another institution told me how previously committed grant funds were being essentially rescinded after the fact. I was skeptical because my own years in government on the other side of the equation had taught me that such a state of affairs was not possible with the obvious exceptions of malfeasance. These were funds where the work had already been done (yes the US government often but not always pays after rather than before the science has been conducted).
We are now beginning to see more of this pattern. The problem is the Sequester itself, which acts as a blunt axe on all federal accounts, rather than allowing for intelligent cuts. The sequester was designed as a ‘suicide pact’ (between Congress and the White House) rather than an actual policy for how to reduce the federal deficit. The effect of that pact is now being felt across the US science waterfront–programs are being interrupted or ended willy nilly leaving young scientists unemployed, high ed institutions holding the bag and our best scientists increasingly looking towards more stable funding environments overseas.
It is now very important for Congress and the White House to move rapidly to end the Sequester and to replace it with a system of smart federal spending reductions that are both rational and adaptable. Given the uproar over the Affordable Care Act and the poll numbers at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, I’m not optimistic. But it’s terribly important.