It's been a rough decade for public funding for research and development. As a percentage of GDP, federal spending on research and development has dropped from just over 1 percent in 2005 to about three-quarters of 1 percent in 2015. That may sound like a trivial difference, but for the thousands of academic researchers that rely on government funds to conduct their work, it equates to more time writing grant applications and less time doing what they do best - research.
While only one-fifth of all federal grant applications ultimately receive funding, the true likelihood of success is much lower for the vast majority of researchers, as about half of all grants go to research labs that are already receiving funding from the federal government. That leaves many promising but unproven research projects fighting for a small piece of the pie. For
up-and-coming researchers trying to establish themselves in academia, the funding landscape could hardly be more bleak.
Perhaps most startlingly, these trends don't even begin to account for the seismic shifts taking place at the top of the US government. While it's still too early to confidently predict future levels of federal funding for research and development, it's likely that there are big changes underway for many recipients of government grants.
This is a puzzling development when we consider that the US economy has been historically driven by innovation. Consider that half of all wealth generated in the United States since World War II can be traced back to a research grant. From computers to lasers, research fuels the innovation that keeps our society and economy moving forward. As far as social and financial return, there is no investment more worthwhile than research.
Fortunately, there's a group of people well-positioned to take up the mantle of supporting academic research - philanthropists. Reviving the patron funding model, the givers of the world have an opportunity to propel the next generation of great innovators and thinkers.