Within 10 years, the United States could lose its status as the world's scientific superpower, according to the National Institutes of Health director Dr. Francis Collins.
His comments were made during Congressional testimony about the state of American biomedical research and follow from a report published by the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association), which highlights how international research efforts are outpacing our own.
Besides the obvious, that less science funding means fewer discoveries and therefore fewer scientific benefits when it comes to disease prevention, the trend of decreased research budgets risks deterring an entire generation of scientists from entering the field. As Collins explained to Congress:
"[Young scientists] are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years. They look ahead of them and see the more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going and suffering rejection after rejection of grants that previously would have been supportive. And they wonder, 'Do we really want to sign up for that?' And many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away."
Collins also pointed out that China is currently filing more biomedical patents than the United States — not just more patents per dollar of funding, but also more patents in absolute terms.
During testimony, the NIH suffered criticism from some members of Congress who saw certain avenues of research as too marginal to be considered useful, but Collins explained that the very nature of discovery depends on getting useful results from unexpected places.
During his Big Think interview, Collins explained how the NIH decides to fund projects, preferring proposals that examine ripe areas of exploration:
"There’s no point throwing money at a problem if nobody had any ideas about how to move the ball forward. ... NIH depends very heavily on the scientific community to come forward with their best and brightest ideas, and they send us their grant proposals in an unsolicited way and that’s where the majority of our money goes. But we also identify areas which are ripe for exploration, where something is really starting to go great guns and we don’t want to slow that down; in fact, we want to speed it up."