To Make Progress, America Must Invest in Research

By Congressman A. Donald McEachin

Sputnik I, a small metal ball with a simplistic radio transmitter, was launched in 1957. Less than a month later, the Soviet Union launched a much larger satellite with a dog aboard. Americans quickly realized they were losing the space race.

Less than five years later, President Kennedy, concerned about letting the Soviets continue to outpace our country, challenged Americans to land a man on the moon within the decade. And Americans succeeded!

Fifty-four years later, after the tragic and untimely death of his son, Vice President Biden issued a similar challenge to Americans to “end cancer as we know it.”

Despite their obvious differences, these two challenges have something very important in common. Both require or required cutting-edge research and skillful, dedicated scientists.

The launch of Sputnik prompted massive investments and sweeping changes to meet those needs. To win the space race, we reformed science education; we made unprecedented investments in research; and we created NASA, an entirely new — and hugely successful — federal agency.

Ending cancer — in fact, solving many of the problems we face — will require the same prolonged commitment.

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Unfortunately, the current administration — and many of my colleagues in Congress — is unwilling. They say we cannot afford new investments in research, or that the government has no role to play. That view is not just an obstacle to progress. It actually threatens to undermine the achievements we already have.

President Trump’s budget request this year sought massive cuts to research, including medical research: It aimed to cut $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health in the first year, including $1 billion from the National Cancer Institute. Such deep funding cuts would not merely limit new initiatives — they would endanger or end projects that are already happening.

That same shortsighted perspective has been reflected in every iteration of the Republicans’ tax bill. Most of us are not graduate students — but all of us have a deep interest in ensuring that those students can pursue their studies. These men and women become the kind of scientists and researchers who got us to the moon — and who will someday find a cure for cancer. Their work lengthens and improves our lives in countless ways, both obvious and obscure.

Almost 145,000 graduate students have some or all of their tuition expenses waived in exchange for work as teaching assistants and researchers. Often, these waivers are worth tens of thousands of dollars. The House’s original tax bill taxed tuition waivers as income. Such a change could double, triple, or quadruple what many students owe in federal taxes — even as their take-home pay, their academic stipend, remains exactly the same. Needless to say, this change would put graduate education beyond reach for many, many students.

The original House bill would also have made life harder for former students, including former undergraduates: It sought to eliminate existing tax deductions for the interest payments on student loans. Already, we read of students who can’t start families or buy homes because they are buried under a mountain of debt. Making those debts more burdensome would be cruel and counterproductive.

Finally, both the House and Senate bills would tax certain college endowments — an unprecedented change that would reduce funding for tuition assistance and research. Unlike the preceding proposals, this change remains in the final bill.

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Regardless of whether they were included in the final text, all of these ideas were shameful and counterproductive. Like President Trump’s budget request, every iteration of the tax bill has been fundamentally incompatible with the kind of investments and initiatives that have made the United States prosperous and strong.

Middle class families need and deserve a tax break. All Americans need and deserve a simpler tax process. But the final tax bill will surely have the opposite effect — even as it does terrible and unnecessary damage to our ability to meet big challenges and tackle important projects. These are not the kind of policies that got us to the moon; they are not the kind of policies that will help us make progress on cancer. They are recipes for disaster, not success.

The Richmond area alone has five not-for-profit, four-year higher education institutions that pride themselves on both teaching and research — not to mention several community colleges and for-profit schools. These institutions are economic engines and cultural hubs; they keep us moving into the future. If we undermine education, if we de-fund research, those schools will be forced to retrench — and all of us will feel the ripples of those changes. We can and must do better.

A. Donald McEachin, a Democrat, represents Virginia’s 4th District in the U.S. House of Representatives. Contact his Richmond office at (804) 486–1840.

Originally published at www.richmond.com on 12/23/2017.

Father, husband & Progressive Democrat in Congress. Proudly representing VA’s Fighting 4th Congressional District #VA04. Member of @EnergyCommerce & @NRDems.