Some discoveries start small

Published 9:49 am Friday, June 5, 2015

by Randy Forbes

Over 100 years ago at their camp at Kill Devil Hills, two brothers took a flight that launched a million others. Their accomplishment changed the course of history for the world. It opened means of communication. It created access. It erased geographic and cultural barriers. From the first flight to the first footprint on the moon, there was an explosion of innovation such as has rarely been seen throughout the history of humanity.

I was reminded of the Wright brothers’ great feat last week when one of my staff members passed a news article across my desk about a newly released biography on the iconic duo. “How the Wright Brothers Reinvented the American Dream,” the article title read.

I remember learning about the Wright Brothers as a child — it was always a favorite of students in history classes, an inspiring depiction of the American dream. Years ago, Shirley and I would take our children to visit Kitty Hawk. I’ve seen the wood and muslin plane on display in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., but it has been awhile since I truly considered the accomplishments the Wright brothers made. As I read this profile, I thought about how their inaugural flight was distinctly American in the way that they achieved an incredible goal in the face of many adversities. But I was also reminded of something even more important: big discoveries start small.

The Wright Brothers were bicycle makers with an idea — an idea they worked hard at until it became a reality. They could have never imagined the impact their discovery would have on our world. Nor could many others. In fact, even after their first successful few flights, the federal government was skeptical of their flying machine.

Today, air carriers operating in U.S. airspace transport about 837 million passengers a year, according to a 2014 economic impact report by the Federal Aviation Administration. Commercial airline operations enabled $262 billion of visitor expenditures on goods and services. And those are just direct economic impacts of civilian aviation. They don’t consider the extended national and global impact — economic and otherwise — that human flight has had.

The Wright brothers’ story is proof that scientific discoveries become engines for America’s competitiveness and inspiration of hope for millions across the globe. It’s a reminder of the importance of investing in scientific discovery. Just imagine what game-changing breakthroughs in disease research (diabetes, cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress) could do for our nation and our world. Imagine if we continued to push the boundaries of the possible in human space exploration.

Investing in science, discovery and research requires resources, intention and deliberate and efficient choices. Just as with any long-term investment, we cannot neglect it and expect valuable returns in the future.

Many say we are falling behind, that our foray into human flight, our medical breakthroughs and our steps on the moon are fading into distant memory.

I refuse to believe our best days of scientific discovery are behind us. Scientists and researchers stand ready with plans etched for clinical trials. The brilliant minds that existed when we put a man on the moon or found a cure for polio are just as prevalent today. However, we need to create an environment that allows them to thrive.

We need a system modeled on innovation, driven by technology and intent on discovery rather than slow, encumbering government red tape. We need to empower inventors, scientists and creators — not federal bureaucrats — for new ideas that impact the lives of Americans. We need to allow the small beginnings to become big discoveries.

That’s why I’ve introduced legislation to prioritize funding for medical research that will provide the most benefit to patients. That’s why I make decisions based on a belief that the federal government should focus less on creating government-run solutions and more on creating an environment that empowers ingenuity and creativity in Americans.

Big discoveries take time and deliberate effort. They may start on a sand dune in North Carolina, or under a microscope at an NIH lab, or when a student sits down at a school computer to learn how to code. One day, the discovery will take flight — launching a better life for thousands and changing the world as we know it. We stand to gain too much from scientific discovery to let it fall away.

CONGRESSMAN RANDY FORBES represents Virginia’s Fourth District, which includes Suffolk, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Visit his website at