Perspective: The Right Time to Invest in Science
By Dean Joseph J. Helble
I suspect I am not alone in struggling to reconcile statements of support for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education from politicians across the ideological spectrum with diminishing federal support for scientific research, particularly in areas of the physical and biomedical sciences that are so important to engineering programs like Dartmouth’s.
The automatic discretionary spending cuts embedded within the federal budget sequester are the latest example of eroding support for investments needed for our long-term economic health. Federal spending on non-defense discretionary R&D as a percentage of the federal budget has been falling for four decades, and the cuts associated with the sequester bring us back to the R&D spending levels of the late 1990s in constant dollar terms. At the same time, many nations have been posting double-digit annual increases in R&D investment, and the global R&D organization Battelle has forecast that Asia will soon surpass the Americas in R&D spending for the first time.
Locally, as many of our alumni know, federal investment in R&D has had an enormously positive impact on the Upper Valley. Over the past decade, one in four members of the Thayer School faculty has started a company based on his or her scientific work, which on a per capita basis is one of the highest levels (if not the highest level) for an engineering school anywhere in the nation. Most of these startups are in the Upper Valley and employ local residents in growing high-technology enterprises. Other companies—SustainX, now located in Seabrook, N.H., or Sproxil, located in Cambridge, Mass.—were cofounded or founded by students in our Ph.D. Innovation Program, a unique effort to help Ph.D. students learn the skills necessary to become technology entrepreneurs.
Over the past six years, we have hired 14 new tenure-track faculty members at the Thayer School, and three additional searches are currently underway. Of the 14 new professors, 11 either came to Thayer with a history of developing patented technologies or have already done so in their brief time in Hanover. Three members of this group have already commercialized their technologies. We are in the early stages of contemplating further growth of Dartmouth’s engineering program that would bring even more entrepreneurial faculty members to Hanover. Without strong federal support, their ability to conduct the research, develop the technologies, and transfer those innovations into high-tech enterprises will be severely impeded.
Last year, the President and the recently disbanded Council on Jobs and Competitiveness set a national goal of producing 10,000 more engineers annually. They were right that we need more engineers. In fact, I believe we need at least 30,000 more engineers a year, given the challenges we face in energy, healthcare, the environment, communications, and infrastructure. Now, a time of slow economic growth, is exactly the time to invest. Cutting non-defense R&D disproportionately sends a very discouraging signal to students and young faculty at a time when the nation has just started to reverse a 30-year decline in the production of engineering talent. If we want a strong future, we need to keep funding the work—and education—of our scientists and engineers.