The same article stressed that “governments must provide adequate support -- especially for basic science, which promises big payoffs but requires the longer-term, sustainable funding that can be impractical for the private sector."

A Battelle report on Global R&D Forecasting stressed that “It’s important to note the long-term effects of R&D investments and their close relationship to economic growth…. R&D is not an instrument that can be quickly turned on and off to trigger economic growth. In our increasingly technology-dependent world, strong continued support of R&D investments is essential to maintain and grow a nation’s economic strength.”

A recent blog by technology writer Ken Daley, who also is vice chairman of the California Democratic Party's Computer & Internet Caucus, noted that “while U.S. spending remains stagnant and—under sequestration—[is] soon to be nonexistent, China's spending has continued to rise … while the U.S. and Europe will both fail to even match their projected inflation rates of 1.9% and 1.5%, respectively, in 2013.”

The Battelle report also noted that “it is well-established that technological change is accelerating and without the tools, knowledge, and expertise to build upon those changes, a nation will quickly fall behind those that do invest in innovation.”

The report goes on to state that “for more than 65 years, the bastion of basic research has been the 127 U.S. research universities that account for more than 80% of the federally funded research. But even this cornerstone of R&D is under attack by the economic uncertainties of federal and industrial funding, the rapid growth and funding of foreign universities, and staffing challenges.”

The sensitivity of the academic R&D pipeline to funding uncertainties is significant, because it does not take much of a cut in grant funding to divert the life-courses of hundreds of young individuals with proven and unusually high potential to contribute to solving fundamental problems.

In fact, what leaders may think of as a relatively tolerable reduction in budget from a percentage perspective can be quite impactfull to future research in the real world. When Battelle forecast 9% cuts at NIH in grant funding for 2013, that equated to 2,300 research projects going unfunded and 255 graduate students losing support for every 1% loss in funding at just that one agency.

Battelle's 2014 forecast for academic funding is faintly hopeful that the academic research funding dive may level out this year and even creep up slightly, but it is so laced with doubts about the prospects and uncertainties that it will not give much of a morale boost to young researchers who have been watching year after year as their cohort's prospects fell apart.

It is early career academic professionals that are often the source of new ideas, and serve as the mentors and the motivators for graduate students and Ph.D. candidates climbing the academic ladder.

Young faculty members are winning smaller and smaller grants, which translates into fewer and fewer assistanceships.

What are we to do?

I polled the civil engineering department chairs from three major East Coast universities over the last few days to discuss this issue.

All were adamant that their young faculty members are struggling to bring in enough research funding to provide assistance to graduate students. While grants are available, the competition for them has become much more intense and their size significantly smaller than in the past.

Couple that with the increased costs of doing research  and the rising costs of equipment and laboratories, etc., and fewer and fewer students are receiving support. This is reflected in a decline in the number of graduate students as well as a reduction in faculty positions.

All three department chairs expressed concern over their reduced ability to attract U.S. students into graduate programs, especially for Ph.D.-level study.

The proportion of foreign students enrolled in U.S. engineering programs in 2012 was approximately 9% for undergraduates, 43% for Masters' programs and 54% for Ph.D. programs, according to the American Association of Engineering Education.

In addition, while faculty positions have decreased, the undergraduate enrollment has essentially doubled at some institutions—creating a situation of larger class sizes and more teaching being accomplished with adjunct faculty and graduate teaching assistants.

There has been one bright spot on the R&D horizon.

Within the U.S. Dept. of Defense, R&D accounts are being protected from the major reductions threatening the acquisition and operational accounts, perhaps as a hedge to stimulate technological capabilities that can substitute for capabilities provided in the past by soldiers and equipment.

When you add up the funding associated with infrastructure, it is significant, however, that aside from the relatively small accounts associated with military installation management and energy efficiency, most of the infrastructure funding is focused on security.