Defense Secretary Gates: Underfund Basic Research at America’s Peril

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates distills a critical challenge to America’s continued prosperity and global leadership: Deliver to his generation all promised entitlements, or invest in research and education—the foundations of the country’s success.

“I think it’s fair to say America’s economic pre-eminence—and I would argue our national security, and national influence as well—is largely a consequence of near-continual investment, education, and research, mostly in the fields of science and technology over the past 60 years,” Gates says, speaking to the Washington Clean Technology Alliance policy conference in Seattle Monday. “How do you reconcile increasing costs for old people and starving the investment for the future generations? It’s a huge problem for the country.”

Ongoing federal and state budget cuts that gut basic science and education are the wrong answer, says Gates, a former CIA director and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient.

Before delving into research funding, Gates debunked the conventional wisdom that America’s newfound fossil fuels abundance eliminates the need to invest in clean energy.

While new drilling technologies and domestic oil and natural gas discoveries “could mitigate the rise of fuel prices and avoid the kind of Malthusian disaster predicted by some conservation advocates, low, stable petroleum prices—the primary disincentive to investing in clean technologies—are by no means assured,” Gates says.

Indeed, most U.S. recessions since World War Two were linked to oil price increases. “That was until Wall Street turned out to be even more volatile and dysfunctional than third-world petro states,” Gates quips.

“The only economic and environmentally viable solution for the long term is to shift to cleaner energy sources,” Gates says.

Under Gates, the Department of Defense—the largest single energy consumer in the world—has become a leader in the adoption of alternative, more efficient energy technologies, mainly because of the high cost in blood and treasure of supplying fuel to military missions in remote corners of the globe.

Gates, who first went to Washington, DC, 46 years ago, was not optimistic about federal legislation that would address climate change in a meaningful way anytime soon—a view that was shared to a lesser or greater extent by former Washington Sen. Slade Gorton, former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels, and other speakers Monday.

“Getting Washington to pay attention to anything that’s long-term is just hugely difficult, and I think in this area, even more so,” says Gates, the first Defense Secretary to have served under two presidents of different parties.

Instead, Gates offers a persuasive argument for federal investments in research and development and basic science as a fundamental building block to solving manifold challenges in energy and climate, and in other spheres where, he says, the U.S. is losing its edge.

He supports a call for a Manhattan Project-style mobilization of scientists in U.S. national labs to address climate change—something President Obama could do through his executive authority—as proposed in a Washington Post op-ed piece by University of California at San Diego history and science studies professor Naomi Oreskes earlier this month.

“We’ll never probably be able to recreate the sense of urgency and corresponding financial support of the World War Two era, but I thought it was a promising idea,” Gates says.

(It’s worth noting that scientists at several national labs, under the direction of Energy Secretary Steven Chu, are already on the case. The Energy Department has also established “Energy Innovation Hubs” to drive research, development, and commercialization of technologies such as batteries, and most recently, critical materials, including rare earth elements.)

Gates prefaces his call for government R&D investment with the usual caveats about the difficulty of defending discretionary spending in an era of trillion-dollar deficits, and Solyndra-smeared government support for energy innovation. But then he rattles off a list of American successes that have roots in federally backed research:

—From the Defense Department during the Cold War came supersonic flight, stealth, GPS, the Moon Shot, Teflon, the Internet.

—The historical precedent extends to the Human Genome Project, which cost the federal government the equivalent of “two Navy nuclear attack submarines” and has paid hundredfold dividends in jobs and economic activity.

—And it includes hydraulic fracking, which has opened a new era of domestic natural gas abundance, but only became commercially viable through a series of public-private demonstration projects backed by the Department of Energy in the 1970s, Gates says.

“Once again we’re benefitting from strategic investment choices made more than a generation ago,” he says.

“While Solyndra showed the pitfalls of using government as a venture capitalist for individual companies, I continue to believe that the case for funding basic science is strong,” Gates continues.

Unfortunately, that’s not happening, as he illustrates with a series of disappointing statistics—now familiar to advocates of STEM education—that show America’s eroding leadership position in science and technology. A high-tech trade deficit; more corporate spending on tort litigation than R&D; federal research funding plummeting as a percentage of GDP; fewer students pursuing the sciences, and more advanced degrees going to foreign students at U.S. universities.

“To be sure, the U.S. continues to lead the world in overall R&D investment, but in absolute terms, adjusted for inflation, and relative to the rest of the globe, American support is shrinking,” Gates says.”China’s R&D expenditures by contrast are growing at pace and by one estimate are expected to equal the U.S. in 2022.”

Unfortunately, the situation is poised to worsen as lawmakers in DC begin budget negotiations next month, “like the sequel to a really bad movie,” Gates says.

The across-the-board sequestration cuts set to take effect if nothing is done would reduce federal research and development funding—already down 10 percent just since fiscal year 2010—by an estimated $57 billion over the next five years, according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Gates calls across-the-board cutting “managerial cowardice.”)

The problem is not confined to the federal government.

“The reality is, most states are starving their public universities, and the problem is that finite state resources are being consumed by entitlements like Medicaid, and if you graph the decline in support for public education and the growth in state costs for healthcare, there’s almost a direct correlation,” says Gates, formerly president of Texas A&M.

Gates, a Washington resident since 1994, disclosed that he was approached about heading the University of Washington a few years ago, but declined in view of the chronic under-funding of higher education occurring here as well.

“Ultimately, I believe, we’ll all pay the price for short-changing education, research, and other investments in the future,” Gates says. “It will be felt in the decline of America’s quality of life, standards of living, and global influence.”

Photo of Gates by Michael B. Maine.

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