Investing in the Nation’s Future: A Renewed Commitment to Federal Science Funding

AIA CEO and President Eric Fanning
“Investing in the Nation’s Future: A Renewed Commitment to Federal Science Funding”
Bipartisan Policy Center
May 8, 2018
Remarks As Prepared for Delivery

Jason (Grumet), thank you so much for those kind words and for inviting me to speak today. And thank you to the Bipartisan Policy Center and the Science Coalition for your leadership and vision on this issue. As Jason said, today we’re focused on the topic of federal science funding. Not necessarily sexy, but urgent.

I represent an industry that is leading the world in technological innovation, creating American jobs, keeping us safe, and inspiring people to dream big dreams – but for all the aerospace and defense world has done for our economy and our nation’s security, it wouldn’t have been possible without a strong partnership with the federal government. To inspire people, you have to do inspiring things and none of those things are even remotely possible without scientific research.

So, today I want to talk to you about why I think research matters so much, and why government-funded research, in particular, is essential to ensuring we continue to lead the world. And I want to share some thoughts about how we might work together to ensure this funding gets the attention and priority it deserves and requires.

It All Comes Back to Shrimp

One of the most important reasons government funding of research matters is because scientists and researchers are often discovering and innovating around things far enough into the future that there doesn’t yet exist any link to commercial viability. An example: you’d probably be surprised to know that scientists studying barnacles and shellfish are actually doing national security research right at this moment. It may not sound like it, but their results can have profound security and economic impacts.

Recently researchers at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom sponsored by the Office of Naval Research figured out that the key to the sticky cement barnacles create is the tiny drop of oil that their larvae release before attaching to a surface. This droplet clears water from the surface, enabling the barnacles to lay down a super-strong adhesive. The Navy and the shipping industry are now thinking up ways to counter the barnacles’ natural powers, and significantly reduce the estimated $7.5 billion dollars annually wasted for fuel costs due to the drag of the barnacles.

Scientists also discovered a unique herringbone structure in the outer layer of the Mantis Shrimp species, that allow the shrimp to pulverize their foes with the speed of a .22 caliber bullet. This shrimp species is known appropriately as the “Chuck Norris of shrimp.” The research of scientists at the University of California, Riverside and Purdue University, funded by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, could lead to the development of stronger composite materials for aircraft and other large platforms.

I think if years ago you’d asked some in our industry whether they would pick up the tab to fund research on shrimp and barnacles, they very likely would have said “no.”

An Industry Driven By Research

Those of you who know me know that before serving as the CEO at AIA, I served in a number of roles in the Department of Defense, including Secretary of the Army and Acting Secretary of the Air Force. From my vantage point at the Pentagon, I saw how important research investments were to enabling American forces to keep the peace and, when we need to, overpower an enemy on the battlefield.

Today’s array of military technologies – laser guided weapons, global positioning systems, stealth materials, and the night-vision systems that allowed our Navy seals to take down Osama bin Laden – were the result of a long-term Defense Department commitment to basic and applied research.

On the civil side, for example, we are the world’s acknowledged leader in air transportation and the civil applications of drones because of federally sponsored research in aeronautics. And since its predecessor’s founding in 1915, NASA investments in fundamental aeronautical research have advanced aeronautics and aerospace safety by developing new technologies long before they were commercially viable.

Such aviation innovations as high-speed wings, composite materials, deicing and biofuels are all the result of a long-term basic research commitment from the government.  Frankly, we have all the marvels of Silicon Valley in large measure because of federal investments made in semiconductors in the 1960s to support the Apollo space program and our missile programs.

When you think about the incredible developments already taking place in aerospace, and the future of possibilities ahead – whether that’s driverless airplanes or family vacations to Mars – none of it would be possible without a strong ecosystem of scientific research.

So, one of our associations’ four main priorities is to support national investment—yes tied to aerospace and defense programs and commercial markets our industry supports—but we also support an overall focus on increasing scientific investments across the board. AIA and its member companies enthusiastically support your aim of increasing national investments in across the board research, both basic and applied, because they are critical to our country’s position as the world’s technological leader.

Our Role As The World Leader Is Under Threat

The need to adequately fund scientific research today—based on the innovation we expect our leading research agencies and our industry to deliver— is a key issue that I don’t think enough people in Washington discuss with the attention it deserves.

For years the assumption in Washington has always been that the U.S. would always outpace the international community when it comes to scientific advancement. That’s not the case anymore. China is playing the long game. After a century of American leadership in astronomy, for example, the Chinese now have the world’s largest filled aperture radio telescope, known as “The Eye of Heaven.” And the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects that the Chinese will soon become the world’s top Research and Development spender. At the same time, European countries have made huge investments in scientific instruments like the Large Hadron Collider on the French-Swiss border and in the Ariane launch vehicle, which is now one of the leading competitors in the commercial launch market place.

There evidence is mounting that we can no longer assume that American technological leadership is a given.  Our leadership is now at risk because of years of underfunding of research due to the Budget Control Act of 2011 and its caps on defense and non-defense discretionary spending. Prior to the BCA caps the federal share of basic research carried out in the U.S. was 60 percent. It dropped below 50 percent after the caps were implemented. And while industry can pick up some of the slack—we can’t do it all.

Our nation’s ability to invest in research will continue to be at risk after the recent bipartisan budget agreement sunsets and the BCA caps are slated to return with a vengeance in FY 2020, resulting in $71 billion in overall cuts to defense, and $55 billion in non-defense accounts, with research funding certain to take a big hit.

There is a better way to manage our nation’s long-term investment needs.  When we adequately fund research through the federal government, increasingly industry is more than willing to cost-share important research efforts with its federal partners.

Our industry’s support of NASA’s ongoing 10-year New Aviation Horizons program to expand aeronautics research, including research into low noise supersonic aircraft is an example. NASA’s program is developing a scale demonstrator “X-Plane” to prove that modern technology for supersonic flight can produce a sufficiently weak sonic noise to allow overland flight in the U. S. for the first time since the 1970’s.  As NASA puts it, today’s technology will produce a sonic “thump” rather than the 1960’s-era sonic “boom.”  Once proven, this will usher in a new era of flight that will truly transform long-distance travel.  We need American companies to be at the forefront of that technology as it takes off.  The NASA low-boom demonstrator is a critical part of that effort.

Way Forward

As a general rule, the federal government is in a better position to make serious commitments to expand research into promising new technologies when commercial viability hasn’t yet been proven. We know that it is tough in the current environment in Washington to get anything done on spending, so we need to have a big tent approach. That’s why it’s so fitting this discussion is happening at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

So, what should we do?

First, we must renew the federal commitment to scientific discovery, with sufficient and sustained funding for both basic and applied research accounts in the government’s various research focused agencies. To achieve this objective, Congress must act to end sequestration’s deep cuts to discretionary spending once and for all.

We must also work as a community to ensure we have a well-prepared, dynamic workforce that is able to exploit all the amazing research going on around us. AIA and our member companies have a major focus on workforce issues. And we’re not just focused on entry-level workers; we’re starting much earlier. This year we’re helping to inspire our future talent pipeline by sponsoring a series of inserts to Scholastic magazine focusing on the exciting careers our industry has to offer.

We continue to run the world’s largest student scholarship rocketry competition, with this years’ national finals involving 100 teams from across the country taking place this Saturday at Great Meadow in the Plains, Virginia. If you’re in the area and want to see some incredible middle school and high school students launch their rockets, please join us.

We’re also becoming more engaged in federal education policy, adding our voice to supporting the “Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act,” also known as the Perkins Act Reauthorization, which will update federal career and technical education policies to help students gain the knowledge and skills they need to compete for in-demand jobs.


So, while it may not have seemed intuitive to have a history major from outside government speak on this subject today, I hope my presence here makes clear that our industry will make common cause with you as we address this pressing national issue. By working together, we can achieve outcomes that serve to advance the nation’s scientific and technological research enterprise, across all research sectors.

Thank you.