On Poetry, Physics, and Prosperity
The new administration in Washington has created a lot of uncertainty for American higher education. I want to take a few minutes to talk about one unknown—federal funding for scientific research, the arts, and the humanities.
It is disheartening that among the agencies targeted for cuts in President Trump’s preliminary budget plan are four that have powered American progress and prosperity for a generation, much of that in partnership with higher education. As a university president, I am deeply troubled about the fate of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Other proposed cuts would likely affect the U.S. Agency for International Development, which supports research that improves global human security.
The NIH, the largest supporter of research at U.S. colleges and universities, stands to lose almost 20 percent of its budget. Basic science research has led to innovations that have improved the lives of millions. But overall, government funding for it would decline 10.8 percent—and that’s on top of dollars lost through sequestration, those automatic cuts that began in 2013.
The NIH was the brainchild of Tufts alumnus Vannevar Bush, the engineer who headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II. In a 1945 report to the president, titled “Science, the Endless Frontier,” Bush urged increased government support for scientific research. His call to action created a social contract that fueled the nation’s economic growth and gave rise to life-altering discoveries.
It has enabled us to map the human genome, leading to monumental advances in human health and disease prevention. Government funding of university research produced the internet, supercomputers, the Google search engine, smartphone technology, GPS, artificial intelligence, MRI, and other medical diagnostics. The NIH and NSF also support social science research that is critical to evidence-based public policy.
Academic research drives our knowledge-based, innovation economy; it ensures U.S. competitiveness in the global market. The return on that investment has been nothing short of spectacular: Even though research funding represents a sliver of the total budget, the Science Coalition estimates that such activity has stimulated as much as half of the nation’s economic growth since 1945.
While the proposed cuts to research are daunting indeed, the Trump budget would, for the first time in history, eliminate all funding for the NEH and the NEA. Each receives $148 million in federal support, a fraction of a $4 trillion budget. “We have not always been kind, in America, to the artists and scholars who are the keepers of our vision,” President Lyndon B. Johnson said in 1965, when he created the NEH and the NEA.
The arts also create economic benefits. The advocacy group Americans for the Arts estimates that local investments by the NEA contribute to a $730 billion arts and culture industry, which supports 4.8 million jobs. At Tufts, we reaffirmed our own commitment to the importance of the arts in educating our future leaders, creators, and problem solvers with the acquisition of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts last summer.
The arts, humanities, and sciences are the lenses through which we make sense of the world. The nation needs poets and physicists, seismologists and sculptors, dreamers and data scientists. Colleges and universities are the incubators of that talent.
At Tufts, we are making the case for federal funding. I meet regularly with our congressional delegation and funding agencies, as do many of our distinguished faculty. We are active in national coalitions that advocate on behalf of science, the humanities, and the arts. I remain hopeful that policymakers and the public will recognize that we must continue to champion each of these disciplines as esssential to our national welfare.
Anthony P. Monaco
President, Tufts University