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Investing in Fundamental Science: A Grantmaker's Perspective

May 26, 2015

Harvey_v_fineberg_for_PhilanTopicA half-century ago, Gordon Moore wrote a paper in which he projected that progress in the density and speed of silicon chips would increase exponentially. In his paper, Moore envisioned how this would enable technologies ranging from the personal computer, to the smart phone, to the self-driving car. His prediction became known as Moore's Law, and it has held remarkably true for fifty years. At a recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his seminal paper, Moore talked about the impact of his insight on modern technology and the crucial role of basic scientific research in making it come true.

Moore, a founder of Intel and chairman of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, noted that the technological progress we have enjoyed over the last half-century was enabled by science education and basic research. While the opportunities for discovery have never been greater, commitment to and funding for science — from government, industry, and philanthropy — fall far short of what is needed today to accelerate progress into the future.

In 1965, when Moore enunciated his insights into the development of the microchip, the U.S. government invested about 10 percent of its budget in basic research and development. Today, federal funding for basic research has fallen below 4 percent. 

"I'm disappointed that the federal government seems to be decreasing its support of basic research. That's really where these ideas get started," said Moore. "Our position in the world of fundamental science has deteriorated pretty badly. There are several other countries that are spending a significantly higher percentage of their GNP than we are on basic science or on science, and ours is becoming less and less basic."

Once a hallmark of an innovation-focused American society, corporate labs are almost non-existent today. Coupled with cuts in government funding, the United States is in jeopardy of losing its lead in super-computing, cybersecurity, space exploration, energy, and health care, a recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds.

The signs are not encouraging. Those who conduct basic research are abandoning their work, or not starting it at all. A 2014 survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education of eleven thousand recipients of research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation found that nearly half had abandoned areas of investigation they considered critical to their lab's mission due to funding constraints. What's more, some 75 percent of respondents said they had fired or failed to hire graduate students and research fellows.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation believes it is essential to invest in basic science if the U.S. wants to drive the type of innovation society it has experienced over the last fifty years. We believe in the inherent value of science and the sense of awe that discovery inspires. And we are confident that scientific advancement and societal benefits will occur if the public, private, and philanthropic sectors find ways to unleash the potential of inquiry and exploration.

Today, as policy makers search for drivers of economic growth, Moore's Law seems like a beacon. Economists have estimated the value of the exponential growth in chip density and speed predicted by Moore's Law and agree it's in the trillions of dollars. Semiconductor analyst G. Dan Hutcheson has said that one-fifth of the asset value in the world's economy would be wiped out if the integrated circuit had not been invented and Moore's Law had never been proved correct.

Put simply, we need more insights like Gordon Moore's — ideas and innovations that fuel progress, create opportunities, and help increase living standards, for everyone.

So, what is required to maintain the pace of technological and scientific advancements over the next fifty years? The answer: investment.

A future in which basic science thrives requires investment now in discovery-driven research and in cultivating an environment that ensures that our best scientific minds can calculate, observe, and invent in a way that leads to the next innovation and the innovation after that. Basic research is the engine that propels society forward, producing the breakthroughs that transform entire fields of study and the way we will live our lives for generations to come.

The fiftieth anniversary of Moore's Law is reason to celebrate the immense power of innovation and creativity. But it's also an occasion to question whether we are abandoning fundamentals — including a commitment to STEM education and basic research — that form the foundation of big ideas that will enable the next fifty years of scientific exploration.

Although private funding cannot fill the full gap in government funding, the Moore Foundation directs 40 percent of its annual grantmaking, or about $100 million, to basic science. In partnership with the Science Philanthropy Alliance, we encourage others to join us in supporting scientific research and helping us create a better future. As citizens and as funders, we can all encourage the preparation and work of scientists whose discovery-driven research lays the foundation for the next fifty years of progress.

Harvey V. Fineberg, M.D., Ph.D, president of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, has devoted most of his career to the fields of health policy and medical decision making and has served as president of the Institute of Medicine, as provost of Harvard University, and as dean of the Harvard School of Public Health.

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