A bleak future for science in the U.S.

This October will be 60 years since I was in 3rd grade when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first satellite to orbit the earth. Little did I realize the event would profoundly affect the United states and directly affect my family. The national humiliation of being beaten to be first in space caused an immense bipartisan response in Congress and was termed the "Sputnik Crisis" by President Eisenhower. Large federal support for research and science education was expedited, which launched a national mission to use science to regain American preeminence.

A few weeks later my father, a chemistry professor at a small Norwegian college in Minnesota, submitted an application for a National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowship to fund a one-year sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley. My parents packed up our old station wagon and five children; we must have resembled a Scandinavian version of the Beverly Hillbillies as we drove west across the country.


The contrast between the tranquility at St. Olaf and the cultural heterogeneity at Berkeley could not have been more dramatic — perhaps like leaving Lake Wobegon for Sodom and Gomorrah. Despite being children, it soon became clear to us that in Berkeley, science was king. Transplanted Midwesterners at Berkeley included Nobel celebrities: Melvin Calvin, who elucidated the molecular basis of photosynthesis, and Glenn Seaborg, who discovered the trans-uranium elements. It was at this time when I first thought to become a scientist. Of course as a child I did not understand the need for federal research funding.

Two decades later, when finishing my clinical training at UNC Chapel Hill, I learned of a new career award program sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) providing modest salary support for clinicians to train in basic science labs. A few months later, I learned that my NIH application had been funded. Reliving family history, my wife and I packed up our aging station wagon, and with our two daughters, we moved to Baltimore, where I aspired to become a biomedical research scientist at Johns Hopkins.


My experience at Hopkins led to a series of discoveries including the aquaporin water channels in cell membranes that allow water to enter or leave tissues. Aquaporins explain how our brains synthesize cerebrospinal fluid, how our eyes generate aqueous humor and tears, how our kidneys can concentrate urine, and even how the rootlets of plants absorb water. This provided insight into numerous clinical disorders including brain edema, epilepsy, cataracts, kidney failure and even malaria. This work was funded by a reliable stream of federal research grants from NIH.

My story is not unique. Federally funded research from NIH, NSF, the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense contributed to developments that we all use today. High-performance computers, GPS, artificial intelligence, civilian aviation, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and organ transplant matching programs are all the result of federal research funds. In other words, without investment in basic and applied research, we would not have the Internet, smart phones, microwave ovens, commercial airlines or essential medicines and devices. Even more importantly, without federal support for science education, we will not train the young scientists of the future who will work to make marvelous new inventions and to protect our children and grandchildren from maladies that we may not yet even recognize.

Unfortunately, the national climate for science has drastically changed. The president's FY2018 budget released last month recommends major reductions in allocations. This will pose significant challenges to scientific discovery and innovation. If enacted, it will devastate the scientific research landscape by cutting total research funding nearly $13 billion including reductions of 11 percent to NSF and 22 percent to NIH.

This budget predicts a bleak future for science in the United States. Without continued investment, opportunities for young researchers are stifled, innovation comes to a halt and collaborative opportunities are lost. If young scientists are prevented from pursuing research, they may never have the opportunity to pursue their ideas for discovery and invention, creating a chain reaction from which future generations are unable to recover. Federal funding for scientific discovery and innovation is an integral component of our nation's history and to our advancement as a society. It is crucial that the government provide ongoing investments in the scientific enterprise.

Dr. Peter Agre, a Bloomberg Distinguished Professor, directs the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute and shared the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His email is