Presidential Archives

Rediscovering the “Endless Frontier”

President David J. Skorton

As prepared for presentation:
June 13, 2007

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Academic Convocation
Rockefeller Research Laboratories Auditorium
430 East 67th Street
New York, NY 10021

Thank you, Dr. Varmus. I am most honored to be here to recognize and congratulate those receiving awards at this academic convocation. I’m pleased to salute the 14 Ph.D. students from Weill Cornell Medical College who carried out their research in laboratories here at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. I have long admired the excellence of the research and clinical care at Sloan Kettering, and it is a pleasure to be able to thank you and your colleagues for sharing that spirit of inquiry with Cornell students. I congratulate all who are receiving awards today. It is wonderful to join in this celebration of academic success and research achievement.

Dr. Varmus was on Cornell’s Ithaca campus just last week as our Atkinson Fellow and gave a compelling lecture on the future of science in America. I am pleased that the partnership between Cornell and MSKCC (along with Rockefeller University) continues to gain momentum and strength and to benefit all three distinguished institutions. The Tri-Institutional MD-PhD Program was begun some 25 years ago to train physicians for careers in biomedical research. And I note that three of the students we honor today have participated in that very selective program. Building on the success of the M.D./Ph.D. program, MSKCC, Rockefeller and Cornell created a Tri-Institutional Initiative in December 2000 to take advantage of the resources found at all three institutions, including WCMC and Cornell’s Ithaca campus. I look forward to continuing to build ties between Cornell and our partner institutions on the Upper East Side.

These are exciting times for biomedical research. But, as I’ll argue in a few minutes, we need a more balanced research and development portfolio in the relative priority given to research versus development and also a renewed national commitment to basic research across disciplines. Both will be needed in order to capitalize on the new research areas opening to us and in order to retain our scientific leadership and economic competitiveness as other nations increase their investments in research and development.

First, some perspective on scientific opportunities that lie ahead: We are on the cusp of truly understanding life processes and health and their alteration in disease states at the level of the gene, the protein, the individual molecule—and of preventing, diagnosing, treating, and curing with a level of precision never before possible. Let me give you one recent example from work done here at MSKCC. Biologists led by Joan Massagué, chair of MSKCC’s Cancer Biology and Genetics Program, have identified a set of genes expressed in human breast cancer cells that work together to remodel the network of blood vessels at the site of the primary tumor—and can also promote the spread of cancer to the lungs. The study, conducted in mice and reported in Nature last month, helps to explain how cancer metastasis can occur and highlights targets for therapeutic treatment.(i)

The merging of disciplines into hybrid fields like chemical biology, biophysics, and my own field of biomedical engineering, where the insights and techniques from disciplines other than biology can yield important understanding, is also leading to new ideas for prevention, diagnosis, treatment and cure. Nanobiotechnology, for example, is drawing together nanoscale fabrication and biotechnology—providing new insights into how individual molecules function in biological systems and also leading to the fabrication of a new generation of micro- and nano-fabricated devices and machines. A physics facility at Cornell—the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source—played a key role in the research of Professor Rod MacKinnon at Rockefeller—in which he determined the structure and function of ion channels and earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003. Last December, Cornell engineers in Ithaca and neurologists at Weill Cornell—working together—discovered that Alzheimer’s is identifiable through a specific pattern of proteins—a sort of signature “bar code”—in the cerebral spinal fluid, which might be used one day for diagnosis and to assess the effectiveness of treatment.

This new age of biomedical research and discovery offers the promise of vastly improved human, animal and plant health, and also of economic return that is likely to boost the competitiveness of those states and nations most willing to invest in the research. Other nations have grasped this reality, and their investments reflect their awareness of the importance of research to their national futures.

But, despite the enormous progress in scientific understanding and methods, I am sorry to report that all is not well in our American science enterprise, due to a steady erosion of the public role in supporting research in our great universities. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s R&D Budget and Policy Program, “The federal investment in basic and applied research would fall for the fourth year in a row in real (inflation adjusted) terms if the [Administration’s proposed] FY 2008 budget is enacted…. The 2008 budget would leave the federal research portfolio 7.4 percent below the 2004 level in inflation adjusted dollars.”(ii) The situation for medical research is of even more concern. The proposed 2008 budget for NIH would be 7.6 percent below the 2004 level, but because the inflation rate for medical research is higher than for the economy as a whole, the actual decrease, according to NIH’s calculations, would be 12 percent.(iii) While certain agencies would see increases overall, much of this overall boost in research funding is due to significant increases in selected areas such as weapons systems development and human spacecraft development, as opposed to the needed increases in the basic research budget.

The National Science Foundation would receive a substantial boost in the 2008 budget proposed by President Bush, continuing the President’s focus on the physical sciences and engineering outlined in the American Competitiveness Initiative released February 2006. According to the budget proposal, the overall budget for NSF would grow by 8.7 percent to $6.43 billion, while the amount allocated for R&D would increase to $4.9 billion.(iv) This is most admirable, and the ACI has gained widespread support in industry and academia. But the Department of Defense’s budget for basic research is slated to be cut by more than 20 percent in the 2008 budget proposal. NASA’s funding growth would go entirely to finish the International Space Station and develop a new vehicle to replace the Space Shuttle rather than for work in the physical sciences, aeronautical sciences, environmental sciences and other areas where universities have carried out so much significant scientific work in the past. As the AAAS notes, “…federal support for research in nearly all disciplines is now in decline, a decline that would accelerate in the 2008 budget, even in the physical sciences where ACI gains would be more than offset by NASA and DOD cuts.”(v)

These short-term “savings” threaten us with long-term loss of scientific progress that has fueled economic growth and improved human health and wellbeing since the years immediately following World War II. They also reflect a long-term shift in the balance between federal and industry support for research. Forty years ago, the federal government accounted for 67 percent of total R&D spending in the U.S. Today the government funds less than a third of U.S. R&D, with industry accounting for most of the rest.(vi) This marks a steady erosion of the philosophy that set the U.S. on the path to scientific and technological preeminence immediately following World War II.

In 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Vannevar Bush (the wartime director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development) to consider how the nation could continue to build on the scientific research advances that had helped the U.S. win World War II. Vannevar Bush’s report, “The Endless Frontier,” proposed that the federal government play a more active role in supporting scientific research. As stated in the report, “There are areas of science in which the public interest is acute but which are likely to be cultivated inadequately if left without more support than will come from private sources. …[W]e are entering a period when science needs and deserves increased support from public funds.”(vii)

Vannevar Bush further recommended that universities be enlisted as the primary performers of basic research and training of the next generation of scientists and engineers. The report led to the creation of the National Science Foundation and to the federal support for university research that has been enormously productive over the past 60 years. In the concluding paragraph of his letter of transmittal, Vannevar Bush wrote, “The pioneer spirit is still vigorous within this nation. Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”(viii) These words are worth remembering in our current age.

What I am proposing today is a new “Endless Frontier,” strengthening the federal investment in basic research that has demonstrated its value over time. We need a balanced basic research program that spans the disciplines—biomedical sciences, physical sciences, engineering, agricultural sciences, environmental sciences and others important to our national health and wellbeing and our economic competitiveness. This needs to be a multi-year plan of modest but steady and predictable increases balanced across a portfolio of the disciplines I just listed. The emphasis should be on competitive research with rigorous peer-review and should support a smooth transition in our great agricultural institutions, where for decades research has been limited by declining levels of support.

There is no doubt about the payoff of such a strategy; the impact of basic research has been large over time. According to the Office of Science, within the U.S. Department of Energy, “The economic impact of innovations derived from basic research is substantial. Recent studies have estimated that the average annual rate of return on R&D investment ranges from 28 percent to 50 percent, depending on the assumptions used. While there is some uncertainty in these numbers, there is general agreement that the impact is huge and that past investment has paid for itself many times over.”(ix)

Interdisciplinary research has been especially productive, with work in the physical sciences often having application in areas of importance to medicine and human health. The same report notes: “Accelerators, originally invented to study the interactions of subatomic particles, now also are used for a wide range of applications, such as: designing new drugs, fabricating semiconductors and microchips, and studying the structure of viruses…. Department of Energy research on radiation’s effect on human cells led to the launching of the Human Genome Project—and its many important consequences: development of DNA sequencing and computational technologies, the successful unraveling of the human genetic code, the promise of gene therapies for such diseases as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, diabetes, and cancer, and the prospect of using genetic techniques to harness microbes that can eat pollution, create hydrogen, and absorb carbon dioxide.”(x) Of course, there are also direct social and personal benefits that accrue from medical research, benefits we have enjoyed by increased longevity and improved quality of life.

Other countries, in Asia and Europe, have grasped the significance of public support of scientific research, and they have surpassed the U.S. in their commitment, as expressed as a fraction of gross domestic product. In global R&D rankings, the U.S. leads the world in terms of total expenditures (accounting for 34% of the total). In fact half of all R&D spending comes from just two nations, the U.S. and Japan.(xi) But, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked fifth in R&D spending as a percent of gross domestic product, behind Japan, South Korea, Sweden and Finland. More important, in spending on basic research—the kind performed predominantly by universities—the U.S. ranked 11th and in non-defense research as a share of the economy it came in at #22.(xii)

The AAAS notes, “Despite an increasingly technology-based economy and a growing recognition among policymakers that federal research investments are the seed corn for future technology-based innovations, the U.S. government research investment has failed to match the new realities and has also failed to match the competition. Asian nations are dramatically increasing their government research investments: both China and South Korea, for example, are boosting government research by 10 percent or more annually.”(xiii)

It is time to reassert bi-partisan support for basic research as a key to our collective future, and to draw on the combined influence of industry, colleges and universities and the public at large in making the case for a renewed national commitment. Just over a decade ago, in 1996, a group of CEOs led by Norman Augustine, president and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corporation (now retired), published an open letter to President Bill Clinton, urging him to sustain the government investment in university research and education even as Clinton worked toward the important goal of balancing the federal budget. And let me quote from that 1996 letter: “Mr. President, as you well know, America’s leadership position in an ever-increasing globally competitive economy has its basis in technological prowess. Our universities, and the research programs pursued therein, have played a pivotal role in continually advancing our technical knowledge. Equally important, they have produced the very scientists and engineers that allow American industry to compete with nations and cultures throughout the world…. History has shown that it is federally sponsored research that provides the truly ‘patient’ capital needed to carry out basic research and create an environment of inspired risk-taking that is essential to technological discovery. We maintain that the federal government is, and must remain, the primary steward of our national trust in university research….”(xiv)

Nine years later, Augustine made some of the same points as chair of the blue-ribbon panel that produced “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.”(xv)

Today, when the opportunities for discovery are more promising than ever, and when the need for basic research has never been greater, when there is superb talent, like that being recognized here today, but when the U.S. is in danger of losing its leadership to more committed nations, it is time to reaffirm the wisdom of Vannevar Bush and Norman Augustine. Our nation’s health and wellbeing, its global competitiveness, and its stature as a world leader depend on a robust, and well-funded basic research enterprise centered within America’s research universities.

Such a renewed commitment will enable the new Ph.D.s and recipients of distinguished lectureships and fellowships, whose success we celebrate today, to realize the full promise of their academic preparation and work here at MSKCC. Whether we see ourselves as members of the biomedical research community, representatives of higher education, or concerned citizens, now is the time to make our opinions known to those who represent us in Washington, D.C. I ask the graduates, your colleagues, family and friends to join me in supporting public investment in research, to ensure that we will be celebrating days like this for decades to come. We are enormously proud of all those we are honoring today. We congratulate you on your success so far, and look forward to the contributions that I know lie ahead.

Congratulations—and may the achievements we celebrate today be a prelude to even greater things to come. Thank you.

(i) Gaorav, P. Gupta, Don X. Nguyen, Anne C. Chiang, Paula D. Bos, Juliet Y. Kim, Cristina Nadal, Roger R. Gomis, Katia Manova-Todorova, and Joan Massagué, “Mediators of vascular remodeling co-opted for sequential steps in lung metastasis,” Nature 446, 765-770, April 12, 2007.
(vi) Anna Bernasek, “The State of Research Isn’t All That Grand,” New York Times, September 3, 2006, p. BU3
(vii) Accessed April 2005
(viii) Accessed April 2005
(xi) Anna Bernasek, “The State of Research Isn’t All That Grand,” NY Times, September 3, 2006, p. BU 3.
(xii) Anna Bernasek, “The State of Research Isn’t All That Grand,” NY Times, September 3, 2006, p. BU 3.
(xiv) Norman Augustine et al. “An Open Letter to President Clinton,” (original letter delivered to the White House on February 13, 1996.)