Keith’s post raises important points so I’d like to add two thoughts.
1. An optimist would point to Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and say that the rise of the benevolent billionaires will fill part of the void. Such foundations will fund an increasing share of basic research. Are their grant officers “smarter” than their government counterparts? Can such Foundations co-ordinate so that they come close to replicating what the NIH and NSF could achieve back in the flush days of the 1990s? In an era of public cuts, will there be a sharp growth in private foundations focused on funding basic research?
UPDATE: Yes, I support basic research funded by government but we have to be careful about quantifying the costs of what would be lost by a 10% cut rather than a 100% cut. Do you believe that President Perry will reduce the NIH’s research budget to $0?
The NIH has an annual research budget of $31.2 billion. I do not believe that Bill Gates is a perfect substitute for basic research funded by government. Nobody is talking about a 100% cut to basic research. The question is; if there is a x% cut will children suffer? What offsetting forces might come into play? This webpage highlights that the top 10 foundations control roughly $100 billion in endowment and the top 100 foundations control $230 billion. If all of this money was invested in health research, this would yield $7 billion per year in grant funding that would completely offset a permanent 22% reduction in the NIH research budget.
2. The rest of the world is developing and doing more serious research. Go to China, their nerds are hard at work. If they make breakthroughs, they will be willing to sell us the new pills. Knowledge is an international public good. Why must it be produced in the USA? If we are silly enough to drop the ball, won’t that create even greater opportunities for potential entrants to fill the gap?