We’re making huge federal investments in science research — and must do more

Research in Mass. and elsewhere 'quite literally lays the foundation for our future'

BASIC SCIENTIFIC RESEARCH opens doors to understanding our world from the smallest nanoparticles to the largest faraway universes. New discoveries can improve lives and help us confront the extraordinary challenges we face. Research is also an engine of innovation and economic development. Basic scientific research quite literally lays the foundation for our future. Those of us who live in the Commonwealth can take pride in how Massachusetts leads the way in carrying out this critical work.   

It should be no surprise that since I came to the Senate, I’ve pushed hard to increase federal support for science. Now it has happened.  

On August 25, President Biden signed into law the CHIPS and Science Act, which authorizes an additional $81 billion in National Science Foundation (NSF) funding over the next five years, nearly doubling their budget. The law also pours tens of billions more into research and development across other government agencies. This funding will support Massachusetts researchers working in groundbreaking new areas, and will help translate their basic research into immediate applications. This support is a strong step in the right direction.  

For decades, Massachusetts has been a national leader in transforming federal dollars into cutting-edge research. Last year alone, researchers in the Commonwealth were awarded nearly $565 million in competitive NSF grants, surpassing every other state except California.

Since I took office in 2013, NSF has awarded funding to nearly 8,000 Massachusetts projects. Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports basic research in the biomedical field, has granted funding for another roughly 50,000 projects in Massachusetts.

These dollars go to researchers and scientists at Massachusetts colleges and universities, laboratories, and hospitals to support cutting-edge research on everything from building better robots to stopping viruses in their tracks. So far this year, Massachusetts researchers have used federal research dollars to develop a sticker that provides continuous ultrasound imaging, create superior semiconductors, and hone techniques for improving artificial intelligence.  And each accomplishment in a laboratory or in the field echoes throughout the economy. Experts estimate that every dollar of NIH funding invested in scientific research generates more than twice as much in economic returns.  

Early in my academic career, I received an NSF grant for my bankruptcy research. I learned first-hand the importance of such funding for developing a new area of inquiry and accelerating research. Now, when I read about the plans of other researchers, I am awed by their vision and the hope for the future that their work represents. That’s why, ever since I’ve been in the Senate, I’ve prioritized increasing these federal investments.

During my first year in office, I called for doubling the NSF budget and providing more year-to-year certainty in funding. In 2016, I introduced the National Biomedical Research Act to invest $100 billion in the NIH and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to fund research for disease prevention, diagnosis, and treatment over the next 10 years.  

I also championed a proposal to fund massive new investments in clean energy research by establishing a National Institutes for Clean Energy, modeled after the NIH, at the Department of Energy. And I’ve pressed for a greater investment to increase racial and gender diversity in the scientific workforce and changes to address the many inequities in who gets federal research grants. I’ve also tried to build bipartisan support for scientific research by, for example, enlisting former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich to come back to Congress in 2015 to join me to urge Congress to increase our research budgets. 

During the nearly 10 years that I’ve been in the Senate, we’ve secured some important victories. Annual budget increases that I’ve pushed for have increased NSF funding by over 28 percent since 2013. In 2017, I led a successful effort to lock an additional $100 million in NIH funding in a bipartisan spending deal. Today, NIH funding is nearly $17 billion higher than when I took office. The Inflation Reduction Act, which the President signed into law last month, will nearly double support for research in the years to come. 

With the passage of the CHIPS bill, we will finally achieve the NSF funding goal I laid out when I took office. Fully funded, the legislation Congress passed last month will go a long way toward providing our nation’s top scientists with the funding certainty they need to undertake cutting-edge research.

CHIPS also contains critical reforms to address racial disparities in the funding of federal research and to diversify STEM participation, including through the appointment of an NSF chief diversity officer.  

But the news is not all good. Despite its critical importance and powerful economic impact, our nation has underinvested in basic research for so long that our base rate has fallen to appalling levels. Even with these new funding increases, federal investment in research remains only a tiny fraction of our GDP—far below where it stood decades earlier. In the 1990s, the US was 4th in the world in terms of R&D spending as a percentage of GDP. Today it has fallen to 9th place, behind advanced economies like South Korea, Japan, and Germany. 

Racial and gender inequities in which researchers receive federal support for their work continue, with many talented people and important projects squeezed out of the system. And in recent years Republicans have shown a disturbing willingness to launch politically-motivated attacks on scientific research. 

Meet the Author

Amid the celebrations over increased support for the sciences, the years of neglect cannot be ignored.  Now is the perfect time for Massachusetts scientists and researchers (and senators) to make the case for continuing to increase the federal investments that will spur more innovation and power our economy into the future.  

Elizabeth Warren is a US senator from Massachusetts.