Super Cities №271—Gutting the Growth Engine

Brendan Hart

Caltech is a national treasure. The powerhouse, under-the-radar university — fun fact: it operates one of NASA’s space centers — recently celebrated a decade of scientific breakthroughs.

Caltech's recent discoveries read like a sci-fi wish list. Real, tangible advances in brain science, microbiology, mapping space, and next-generation energy technologies.

This groundbreaking research cost Caltech hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

Where does that money come from?

In 2018, Caltech received $333,000,000 in research funding — up 6% from a year earlier – of which $289,000,000 came from the federal government. A majority of those funds came from two agencies, NIH and NSF, that are responsible for guiding the federal government's massive research and development (R&D) efforts.

On such complex challenges as mapping the brain or discovering supernovas, dollars spent now – one might call them investments – pay off for decades. Yet Uncle Sam's R&D investments have dropped significantly over recent decades.

  • In 1976, federal R&D spending as a percentage of GDP was slightly above 1.2%
  • By 2018, that number would be decrease by roughly 40%

Since taking office, President Trump has supercharged the decline in US R&D.

His 2018 budget proposed cutting EPA funding by 31%, NIH funding by 18%, and completely eliminating the federal agency responsible for advancing "high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early for private-sector investments."

Trump's latest budget is just as anti-science. Budgets reflect priorities. And this president's budget makes clear that, in no uncertain terms, the US government is no longer committed to leading the world in science.



American R&D was once our country's greatest strength. Government-funded research helped the US win the space race. It helped us defeat the Nazis and save the modern world. It made eradicating polio and smallpox possible.

Now that massive advantage – a defining legacy historically – is being gutted from within.

You will not find Caltech scientists on Fox News. You will not see #LabStrong trending on Twitter. You will not hear this discussed during the next presidential debate.

But investing in science is still super important, and starving our nation’s premier growth engine is just plain stupid.

Maybe that's the point.

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