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Argonne Chief Robert Rosner Sees National Labs As An Engine Of U.S. Innovation
In the eyes of non-scientists, national laboratories may symbolize a bygone era — secretive facilities in remote locations devoted to projects such as atomic weapons. Many of the labs founded during the Cold War era do exist today, but with a very different mission. They perform the kind of long-term research that drives economic growth.
The importance of national labs as sites for unfettered research was the theme of a Washington Science Policy Alliance lecture delivered at AAAS by Robert Rosner, director of the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. In the 10 January lecture, titled “The Role of the National Labs Today,” Rosner sought to explain the need for continued support of national labs in order to foster scientific innovation.
The impact of scientific and technological innovation upon economic growth is often taken for granted. Yet research and development accounted for 50 percent of growth in U.S. gross domestic product in the 20th century, according to Rosner. In order for the United States to compete economically and counter rising trade deficits, support for research and development is vital.
“If we can get ahead in technology by even a small amount, that can provide a huge competitive advantage internationally,” Rosner said.
A prime example is the continued leadership of American corporations in developing Internet technologies. Because the Internet was developed in the United States, the entire spectrum of products and services — such as servers, web browsers and routers — is still dominated by American companies.
Prior to becoming director of Argonne, Rosner had served as the institution’s chief scientist since 2002. Before that, he was chairman of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago and still maintains a faculty appointment at the university.
To observers unfamiliar with recent scientific achievements, he told the AAAS audience, national labs appear to be a “hammer looking for the nail,” survivors of a bygone era without a concrete purpose. And he acknowledged that the overall mission of national labs has changed substantially since their founding.
The earliest national labs such as Argonne, Ames, Los Alamos and Oak Ridge grew out of the need to serve military interests, notably the Manhattan Project. While the Department of Homeland Security is one of several current federal co-sponsors, military and national security projects today represent a much smaller portion of Argonne’s budget than was the case during the Cold War. Today, the focus has shifted to serve national economic needs such as energy consumption and efficiency, Rosner said.
Now in its 60th year with a $500 million budget and 3,000 employees on a 1,500-acre campus southwest of Chicago, Argonne is a major scientific hub. Many of Argonne’s current initiatives follow Department of Energy protocols including producing a more “environmentally benign” automobile, developing new energy technologies, improving materials for industry through a better understanding of their basic properties, probing the fundamental properties of matter on the atomic and subatomic scales and developing computing technologies for large-scale simulations of physical systems. On another front, lab researchers are collaborating with the pharmaceutical industry to study disease prevention at the molecular level.
Without national labs, it is unlikely that any environment would exist to promote free scientific inquiry, what Rosner termed “Jeffersonian science.” Unlike academia and private enterprise, national labs can work on a five-to 10-year research plan, manage large teams of interdisciplinary specialists and shift focus in rapid response to suit current research trends.
“If national labs did not exist, they would have to be invented,” Rosner said.
While it may have lost its dominant position, in many ways Bell Labs still serves as a model for the potential of large, independent research labs, he explained.
When it was operated by AT&T, Bell Labs was the source of great research innovations, foremost among them the transistor. Because AT&T used to operate as a regulated monopoly, the lab could be operated without concerns about its impact on the corporate balance sheet. As private industry abandoned pure research facilities, independent labs devoted to long-term research began to fade. What remains are federally supported national labs which provide a crucial jump-start to the nation’s economy.
Instead of competing with universities and industry as Bell Labs once did, Rosner believes that national labs should work toward collaboration across the continuum of research and industry. Universities provide the expertise in the form of faculty scientists and students while industry provides the demand for a particular innovation.
There are a number of obstacles to the continued viability of basic research, according to Rosner. First is the historical suspicion of science in the United States. Rosner mentioned the low scientific literacy rate as evidenced by recent battles over intelligent design and the decreasing emphasis on science in the grade school curriculum. American students are notoriously behind their counterparts in the rest of the world in terms of scientific aptitude. In addition, the community has to fight off the popular stereotype of its practitioners as Dr. Strangelove-type doomsayers.
As long as the role of science remains misunderstood in the United States national labs can provide a bridge between academia and industry, Rosner said. Corporations are notoriously risk-averse and tend to shy away from high-risk, costly investment projects that do not produce quick, profitable results. The academic community presents its own roadblocks with a culture of “publish or perish.” Grant funding decisions are typically made on a two- to three-year timeframe that often stifles basic research.
“There is a need for large, unique facilities that conduct research in a directed way,” Rosner said. “National labs can serve as the Bell Labs of the future. The nation is in a global battle to remain 'healthy, wealthy and wise.' The key to winning is strong and active collaboration between the national labs, academia and industry.”
18 January 2006