The 179th AAAS Annual Meeting drew the world's top scientists and engineers, but the message that repeatedly rallied participants was an economic one: Nations succeed when they persistently support research and development.
R&D can yield a high rate of economic and social return, according to the experts gathered in Boston, but it can be difficult to convince policy-makers to practice the patient investment strategy needed to reap these rewards.
William H. Press Credit: Atlantic Photography Boston
The discussions often sounded like a briefing aimed at U.S. lawmakers, who at the time of the meeting were 2 weeks away from allowing massive federal budget cuts to go into effect, on 1 March. An analysis by AAAS has concluded that these cuts, known as sequestration, could devastate U.S. science by reducing federal R&D spending by about $54 billion over the next 5 years.
Already, the share of the U.S. economy devoted to R&D expenditures has fallen to 2.77% in 2011, down from 2.84% in 2010 and 2.91% in 2009, according to a January report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
In an address marking the end of his AAAS presidential term, William H. Press said that federal funding has picked up the slack from American industry, which has decreased its basic research investments in an effort to remain strong in an increasingly competitive global economy.
"But the danger today, as I see it," Press said, "is that the same kind of decision that was made by corporations, by industry in the 1990s, could be made by countries now."
That could lead to a new zero-sum world, he added, where "no country is willing to invest in the basic research of the future, where all are scrambling to compete over diminishing returns on past investments."
Science's role as an economic driver was a recurring topic at the 14 to18 February meeting, which convened nearly 10,000 researchers, policy-makers, educators, journalists, and students under the theme "The Beauty and Benefits of Science."
At least two decades' worth of studies support that idea that R&D spend- ing can produce strong economic growth and should be considered an investment. These studies are transforming how countries think about R&D, said Stephen Merrill, the executive director of the National Academies' Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy. The United States' national accounts, he noted in a symposium, have long "treated R&D as an expense without any long-lasting return."
But for some policy-makers, Merrill said, there is a growing shift in perspective "from one of demanding that we demonstrate value for the money, to one of emphasizing that we have to improve value for the money."
Patient investors. Panelists (front to back) Anne Glover, Robert-Jan Smits, and Helga Nowotny say that countries reap economic benefits by persistently supporting basic research. Credit: Atlantic Photography Boston
European finance ministers are also asking for more data on how investment in scientific innovation can help rebuild the continent's battered economies, said Robert-Jan Smits, the European Commission's Director-General in the Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. He said that European researchers have been especially vocal during negotiations for the new EU research funding program set to launch in 2014. "When we had budget discussions 7 years ago, the farmers, they fought for their agricultural subsidies, and the fishermen for their subsidies by blocking the ports, but the scientists stayed in their labs. This time it was a different story."
Smits spoke at a topical panel with Anne Glover, the European Commission's first chief scientific adviser. Glover said that her position, created in 2011, is "a very strong public signal and commitment that certainly for Europe our future is going to be science, engineering, and technology."
In remarks before international reporters at the start of the meeting, Press said that the scientific enterprise is "the greatest mechanism ever invented to turn human creativity into economic benefits." But countries like the United States, he warned, may not be able to capture these benefits without sustained funding for basic research.