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AAAS Forum Explores the Changing and Uncertain Climate for R&D
John H. Marburger III
Support for ambitious new innovation efforts has reached critical mass in the United States, but financial constraints compounded by military campaigns and deficit-reduction efforts will limit the federal government's ability to expand investment in research and development, speakers said at a recent AAAS forum.
It was a recurring theme at the 32nd annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy: Many nations in Asia are dramatically expanding R&D investment, Europe has formed a new council to encourage a competitive research environment, and U.S. research capacity is growing dramatically. But the field is changing in the United States, with research universities, states, private industry and foundations playing new roles and creating new partnerships.
"Neither this administration nor any future one can escape the urgent demands of 21st century realities," John H. Marburger III, science adviser to President George W. Bush, said in the Forum's keynote address. "The struggle against terrorism is real and persistent. Climate change demands attention. Globalization is bringing the problems of countries around the world to our doorstep. And we have yet to address the looming crunch of entitlement programs in our own country—funded through the relentlessly expanding mandatory portion of the federal budget... .
"The message here is that federal funding for science will not grow fast enough in the foreseeable future to keep up with the geometrically expanding research capacity, and that state and private sector resources should be considered more systematically in formulating federal science policy."
The 32nd annual Forum, held 3-4 May in Washington D.C., attracted some 450 policy-makers from government, education, industry, and other fields. The event included discussions of surveillance; R&D in the developing world and Europe; and the quandaries of "sequestered science," in which groundbreaking research findings are kept secret because of business or security interests.
Those issues and others at the Forum reflected the overarching theme of U.S. innovation policy in a world growing smaller and more competitive. Many speakers cited the urgent message of Rising Above the Gathering Storm, the National Academies' seminal 2005 report on U.S. innovation policy, and their presentations suggested that the report has helped galvanize a movement that now reaches into state capitols, universities, foundations, and businesses nationwide.
But with the U.S. Congress recently turning to Democratic control, a presidential campaign already at high pitch, and the Iraq war dominating the political discourse, speakers suggested the prospects for R&D and related issues are unclear.
"We continue to have a highly polarized, closely divided congressional context with a higher level of uncertainty than in recent years," David Goldston, former chief of staff for the House Science Committee, said at a panel on budget policy. "I can't really think of another period recently when people were so uncertain what was going to happen next [politically]."
The immediate future for the federal R&D budget is "fairly bleak," Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D Budget Program, said at the same panel.
If President Bush's fiscal year 2008 budget were approved, Koizumi said, big gains would go to weapons systems, space exploration, and the administration's American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), which stresses the importance of physical sciences to innovation. ACI would double the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science over 10 years. But cuts in other areas would leave inflation-adjusted federal basic and applied research investment down for the fourth straight year.
"Because the proposed 2008 increases are limited to a few areas," Koizumi explained, "total federal support for research would keep declining—even in the physical sciences, where ACI gains would be offset by Department of Defense and NASA research cuts."
Environmental and climate change R&D are in "steep decline," he added, with climate change funding falling since the 2004 fiscal year. A commitment by both Republicans and Democrats to balance the federal budget by 2012 will add further to the strain felt by most federal R&D agencies in recent years.
Taking a longer view, Koizumi noted that the United States still does most of the world's R&D—35% of the $874 billion global R&D total in 2004, compared to 24% for European Union nations and 14% for Japan. But two-thirds of all U.S. R&D is funded by industry, and because industry focuses heavily on development, the majority of research is funded by the federal government. While the United States "compares favorably" with other nations in federal R&D investment, he said, "it's the trends that have policymakers concerned."
Federal R&D as a percentage of GDP has been falling since 2004 (though not as low as levels in the mid- and late 1990s). [use graphic from page 12 of KK's PowerPoint presentation] While total national R&D investment as a percentage of GDP has been steady since the late 1990s, Koizumi reported that countries such as China and South Korea have sharply increased their rate of R&D investment.
Globalization has likewise forced Europe to assess its "fragmentation," the operation of its universities, and other issues related to its competitive strength, said Helga Nowotny, vice president of the new Vienna-based European Research Council.
The Council's mission is to award competitive grants to teams for fundamental research. Its first initiative was aimed at young researchers, Nowotny said, who often complain that they "are too old when they are given scientific independence." The program's budget is about 290 million Euros (about $390 million)—enough for perhaps 200 or 250 substantial grants. The council expected about 3000 grant applications at the program's deadline this spring; instead, it received nearly 9200.
Other Forum speakers suggested that U.S. policymakers, too, are open to new R&D and innovation initiatives. Goldston cited climate change policy as an example.
"Climate is probably the issue that is most different from what it was a few months ago," he said. "The climate debate, which was absolutely taboo in the House and was going slow in the Senate, is now on the front burner, probably more than people had expected. The fact that this is now on top of the agenda... is a total sea change—and that's what's necessary before you get action."
One result, he said, is that fuel economy standards are back on the national agenda.
In the space of two years, innovation has emerged as a national issue attracting broad interest. The issue has galvanized both parties in Congress, though lawmakers and the administration have yet to settle on a unified course of action.
U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon
U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, the Tennessee Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology, noted that the House has approved two major bills drawn from the study's recommendations: the "10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds" Science and Math Scholarship Act, which implements many of the study's K-12 education proposals; and the Sowing the Seeds Through Science and Engineering Research Act, which creates an array of programs to encourage young researchers.
Rising Above the Gathering Storm "made one thing clear," Gordon said at his luncheon talk. "It's the teachers—it's the teachers who matter." The two bills have since been combined with other innovation-related measures into H.R. 2272, the "21st Century Competitiveness Act of 2007," which passed the House by voice vote May 21.
Marburger used his keynote address to press for support of the American Competitiveness Initiative at funding levels requested by the White House.
"The ACI prioritizes basic research in key agencies that have been relatively underfunded given the importance of the fields they support for long-term economic competitiveness," he said. "Because two Congresses have now failed to fund the first year of ACI at the level the president has requested, it is now behind schedule. ... Despite much good will toward the ACI, and recent actions on competitiveness bills by authorizing committees in both the House and the Senate, the fate of this important initiative remains in doubt."
As passed in Congress, the Competitiveness measure includes many non-research programs and requirements not requested by the Bush administration, but no funding for them, Marburger said. "What these agencies need is appropriations for their underfunded basic research programs. They do not need new programs or new bureaucracy, new reporting requirements, or new constraints on how they use their funds... .My plea to Congress is that it protect the basic research aims of the ACI from suffocation under the weight of all these other trimmings—20 new programs in the Senate bill alone."
At the same time, Marburger told the audience, there are other "serious policy challenges" related to innovation and security that have achieved broad recognition and now need to be addressed. Among them: "concerns about a cumbersome and graceless visa process for visiting scientists, implementation of the export control regime, potential over-regulation of dual-use bioscience, and security arrangements that stifle user programs at key national laboratories."
But he stressed the theme of fiscal restraint. He offered a pointed critique of the "earmarking" of federal funds—a practice in which Congress designates that funds be spent on a specific project rather than for an agency's general policy agenda. The practice is distorting the R&D endeavor and undermining the agencies, Marburger warned.
The failure to properly account for earmarks has created a "serious and unacceptable flaw" in AAAS's annual R&D budget analyses, he said. When the White House removed 2007 earmarks to build its base 2008 budget, he said, that helped clarify the agencies' core missions, but the AAAS analysis unfairly criticized the administration for proposing to cut research. [To see Marburger's full critique of the the AAAS analyses, see pages 3-4 of his full text.]
Marburger welcomed congressional action on the current 2007 fiscal year budget, in which earmarked funds from earlier years were passed on to agencies (except for the Department of Defense) without the requirements that agencies direct the funds to specific earmarked purposes. If Congress allows that "windfall" funding for base science budgets to stand in 2008, while also accepting the president's request to holding earmarks to half of 2007 levels, that "would be wonderful for science," he said.
But in the long run, the government's ability to fund research and development is inherently limited, Marburger said. Federal investment has created vast new research capacity, but the government budget for research is not enough to use up all of that capacity.
"New capacity can only be sustained by new revenue sources," he told the Forum. "Under the pressure of increased competition for federal funds, research universities are in fact forging new relationships with private sponsors, and I expect this trend to continue."
Mary Sue Coleman
Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, acknowledged that trend in her remarks to the Forum's budget and R&D panel, saying that independent of any federal action, universities must forge new relationships to assure that the research enterprise is vigorous and productive.
"Today's challenges are incredibly complex, and require the creativity and expertise of many great minds," Coleman said. "We must now turn to each other, and to potential partners at other universities, in the corporate world, and among the public, and say, 'Let's find a way to make this happen.' We must be more nimble, more responsive, and more focused, without losing sight of our core mission to freely discover new knowledge and to share it widely with the world."
Even as universities maintain old rivalries on the football field and in the lab, they must work together to solve problems for the public good, she said. They also work with business; though the cultures of industry and academe can make for uneasy partnerships, she said, "we have much to gain by working with corporations."
Equally important is building a stronger partnership with the public. "We simply must do a better job of explaining the impact of our vast research enterprise, and its many benefits to society," Coleman said. "We must educate the public about the promise of stem cells, the potential of nanotechnology, and the power of biomedical engineering, and their importance to our national and regional competitiveness and economic health. We must demonstrate the return on the public's investment if we expect to have the public's support and advocacy."
Edward W. Lempinen
1 June 2007