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Private sector ought to take the lead in research funding

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Government-funded research during the cold war and even World War II produced technological inventions that still help drive the private economy. To some extent we are living off of capital investments in research made decades ago.

The consensus surrounding basic research in science and technology back then no longer exists. We've lost the challenge of a national emergency that gave direction to our research.

So a policy question has arisen: What will the new arrangements be to spur and ensure scientific innovation for coming generations?

It is becoming clearer and clearer that business and industry must be at the heart of invention and change, both in terms of funding and - even more important - in terms of planning for the longterm.

Few, however, are articulating that point of view - and the discussion has centered largely on federal spending. The government now funds two-thirds of "basic" research - work that is thought to be at the very heart of the economy's future. Private industry funds only a third of such research.

Federal funding, however, won't be enough for what's needed. And worse, no plan exists to target where federal research funds will do the most good - partly because there's no government agency with the capacity to oversee the complexities of prioritizing funding allocations. The market economy does have that capacity.

What happens now with federal research funding is that the best lobbying efforts win the lion's share. That lobby is biomedical research.

Congress understandably cut federal research and development right after the cold war. Since then, federal funding for research and development actually has come back fairly strongly, but not in proportion to the growth of the economy.

Physics, chemistry, math, engineering, and computer science have become poor cousins to the life sciences.

Biomedical research now gets the largest share of federal research money. The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which channel most federal biomedical research dollars, now receive 48 percent of all federal funds spent on basic research in the sciences, compared with 37 percent a decade ago. Since 1994, NIH's total budget is up 28 percent, to $15.6 billion a year, after adjusting for inflation.

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