Unlocking Our Future
Representative Vernon J. Ehlers
The notion of state support for scientific research has existed for centuries; Francis Bacon called for such funding as far back as the early 1600s, and some monarchs and nobles responded to his call. It was not until 1862, however, when the Land Grant Colleges were established, that the United States began to organize and provide federal support for its science and engineering enterprise. Even so, it took until the outbreak of World War II for the Nation to fully grasp the benefits of substantial federal support for scientific research. It was at the culmination of that war, fresh from its lessons, that Vannevar Bush wrote his seminal document ScienceThe Endless Frontier.
The political consensus necessary to build today's science and engineering enterprise was forged largely by the Nation's needs and priorities in the period following the second World War, when the threat of total destruction by nuclear weapons was frighteningly real. Under these circumstances, the exigencies of the Cold War made science politically unassailable.
Recent geopolitical changes will have tremendous ramifications for the scientific enterprise. We are now blessed to live in a time of relative peace. Today, threats from rogue nations or individuals wreaking terror have replaced the fear of utter annihilation by the former Soviet Union. While we must remain ever vigilant and militarily strong, the need to maintain economic strength has taken on primary importance today. We now recognize more clearly than ever that economic strength facilitates not only a strong defense, but promotes other societal needs, such as social and political stability, good health, and the preservation of freedom.
The growth of economies throughout the world since the industrial revolution began has been driven by continual technological innovation through the pursuit of scientific understanding and application of engineering solutions. America has been particularly successful in capturing the benefits of the scientific and engineering enterprise, but it will take continued investment in this enterprise if we hope to stay ahead of our economic competitors in the rest of the world. Many of those challengers have learned well the lessons of our employment of the research and technology enterprise for economic gain.
A truly great nation requires more than simply economic power and the possession of military might, however. In a truly great nation, freedom triumphs. Diversity is not just tolerated, but celebrated. The arts flourish alongside the sciences. And strength is used not to conquer, but to assist. Economic stability brings more than a high standard of living in the purely material sense. It also promotes quality of life in the broadest sense.
Pursuing freedom requires confidence about our ability to manage the challenges raised by our increasing technological capabilities. Americans must remain optimistic about the ability of science and engineering to help solve their problemsand about their own ability to control the application of technological solutions. We must all possess the tools necessary to remain in control of our lives so that fear of the unknown does not slow down the pursuit of science. Science and engineering must be used to expand freedom, not to limit it.
As a nation, we have much to be proud of. But we ought always to be seeking to improve. Science and technology can play important roles in driving this improvement. These beliefsthat we can do better and that improvement can come, at least in part, through a strong science and technology programare reflected in the vision that has guided the Committee on Science in formulating this policy study and in writing this report:
The United States of America must maintain and improve its preeminent position in science and technology in order to advance human understanding of the universe and all it contains, and to improve the lives, health, and freedom of all peoples.
The continued health of the scientific enterprise is a central component in reaching this vision. In this report, therefore, we have laid out our recommendations for keeping the enterprise sound and strengthening it further. There is no singular, sweeping plan for doing so. The fact that keeping the enterprise healthy requires numerous actions and multiple steps is indicative of the complexity of the enterprise. The fact that we advocate not a major overhaul but rather a fine-tuning and rejuvenation is indicative of its present strength. It is also not something the Congress or even the federal government can do on its ownmaking these mid-course corrections will require the involvement of citizens and organizations from across the nation.
Strengthening the Scientific and Engineering Enterprise
Our recommendations focus on improving three major areas. First, scienceincluding understanding-driven research, targeted basic research, and mission-directed researchmust be given the opportunity to thrive, as it is the precursor to new and better understanding, products and processes. The federal investment in science has yielded stunning payoffs. It has spawned not only new products, but also entire industries. To build upon the strength of the research enterprise we must make federal research funding stable and substantial, maintain diversity in the federal research portfolio, and promote creative, groundbreaking research. Our challenge is actually twice as difficult as that which faced Vannevar Bush in 1945: we must maintain his legacy of excellence in groundbreaking research for which our science enterprise has become known, but in addition we must also take steps to explain the benefits of that research and make its results and benefits broadly known and available.
The role of the private sector is just as important in maintaining the overall scientific and engineering enterprise. The federal government's role in the application of research is naturally limited by the need to allow market forces to operate, but it is important that we ensure that the context in which technology-based industries operate is as conducive to the advancement of science, technology, and economic growth as possible. Because state-based economic development partnerships are far better suited to take on a greater role in this area, we have described some of their unique skills and outlined some of the ways they are already doing so.
Third, our system of education, from kindergarten to research universities, must be strengthened. Our effectiveness in realizing the vision we have identified will be largely determined by the intellectual capital of the Nation. Education is critical to developing this resource. Not only must we ensure that we continue to produce world-class scientists and engineers, we must also provide every citizen with an adequate grounding in science and math if we are to give them an opportunity to succeed in the technology-based world of tomorrowa lifelong learning proposition.
New Roles and Responsibilities for Science
While acknowledging the continuing need for science and engineering in national security, health, and the economy, the challenges we face today cause us to propose that the scientific and engineering enterprise ought to move towards center stage in a fourth role: that of helping society make good decisions. We believe this role for science will take on increasing importance, particularly as we face difficult decisions related to the environment. Accomplishing this goal will require, among other things, the development of research agendas aimed at analyzing and resolving contentious issues, and will demand closer coordination among scientists, engineers, and policymakers.
With the conduct of science today often transcending national borders, it is increasingly in our national interest to participate in international scientific collaborations. When it is, we should look to become involved. Not only will our participation reap direct benefits to our own research, but it will help spread the scientific ethos of free inquiry and rational decision-making worldwide and help us realize our vision of improving the lives, health and freedom of all peoples.
Finally, science must maintain a solid relationship with the society that supports it. In this report, we have not only suggested ways in which the scientific enterprise itself can be strengthened, but also ways to fortify the ties between science and the American people. Whether through better communication among scientists, journalists, and the public, increased recognition of the importance of mission-directed research, or methods to ensure that, by setting priorities, we reap ever greater returns on the research investment, strong ties between science and society are paramount. Re-forging those ties with the American people is perhaps the single most important challenge facing science and engineering in the near future.
Engaging in an Ongoing Process
We make no claim to have all of the answers or possess the ability to identify all of the steps necessary to reach our vision. Instead, this report attempts to lay out, in broad strokes, the problems we must address and constitutes the beginning of a lengthy process that we must all engage in together.
Finally, we recognize that as important as science and technology are, they are not ends in themselves. Neither science nor technology are panaceas for our Nation's or the planet's most troubling problems. Neither can guide morality nor substitute for idealism. Instead, science and technology are among the many tools to be used in building an even stronger Nation and safer planet.
Background and Introduction
The Speaker's Charge
On February 12, 1997, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, sent a letter to House Committee on Science Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. outlining a charge to the Committee to develop a long-range science and technology policy for the Nation. Excerpts of that letter follow:
The United States has been operating under a model developed by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 report to the President entitled ScienceThe Endless Frontier. It continues to operate under that model with little change. This approach served us very well during the Cold War, because Bush's science policy was predicated upon serving the military needs of our nation, ensuring national pride in our scientific and technological accomplishments, and developing a strong scientific, technological, and manufacturing enterprise that would serve us well not only in peace but also would be essential for this country in both the Cold War and potential hot wars.
I know that Vern [Ehlers] has discussed science policy with many academic and scientific leaders from across the country and has received a positive response from the scientific community. I believe it would be a powerful role for Vern to lead, with your advice and support, the House in developing a new, sensible, coherent longrange science and technology policy.
In addressing the Speaker's challenge, Science Committee Chairman Sensenbrenner asked Vernon Ehlers, the Committee's Vice Chairman, to lead a Committee study of the current state of the Nation's science and technology policies. Mr. Ehlers was also charged with outlining a framework for an updated national science policy that can serve as a policy guide to the Committee, Congress and the Nation.
A number of different approaches were used to gather input for the study: seven1 hearings were held before the full Science Committee, two roundtable discussions were convened, and a web site was set up, through which the public could participate. In addition, interactions between the scientific and science policy communities and the Committee were facilitated by the speeches and other public appearances made by Mr. Ehlers and the Chairman, and in meetings between interested parties and the Congressman, staff, or both. All of these exchanges were crucial to gathering input into the important issues facing the national scientific enterprise.
A Vision for the Future
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
The hopes of a nascent Nation and her people were elegantly simple: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In the centuries since the blood of our ancestors was shed in pursuit of those ideals, the Colonies that became the United States were transformed from aspiring Nation into the world's single greatest power. And yet, the original ambitions maintain their import to this day, as freedom must be vigilantly protected, good health is not ensured and prosperity is not yet enjoyed by all. Thus pursuit of the same basic objectives as those of our Nation's forefathers continues to propel us forward.
Our Nation continues to grow and develop in the context of a world that has witnessed vast changes. Today, no nation's economy can remain isolated; commerce links us all. Once-feared plagues have been rendered virtually obsolete while equally lethal ones have arisen. Our explorations range from the depths of the Earth's oceans to the hostile surfaces of our moon and neighboring planets, and our observations extend to the far corners of our universe and the interior of the atomic nucleus. Weapons capable of unfathomable destruction can be wielded from opposite sides of the globe by the touch of a button. Information is nearly instantaneously available and can be accessed from anywhere on the planetand even from the reaches of space. Human impact on the planet, if left unchecked, may threaten the very resources we depend on for life. These changes tie the fate of all of humankind more closely together than perhaps ever before.
Facing tomorrow's challenges demands that we be armed with the power that is gained by knowledge and manifested in ingenuity. More than ever before, it will be our ability to gain a better understanding of our universe and all it contains, and to channel that understanding into solutions, that will enable us to realize the ideals our Nation holds sacredand that others may aspire to. For the United States of America, continued leadership in science and technology will enable us to pursue the discovery and innovation that leads to better lives, improved health, and greater freedom for all peoples, as the advances generated and stimulated by science do not remain bound by geographic borders. A vigorous and sustainable American science and technology enterprise may be our most important legacy to future generations. This conviction is reflected in the following vision statement, which forms the foundation of this document and guided the Committee's work:
The United States of America must maintain and improve its preeminent position in science and technology in order to advance human understanding of the universe and all it contains, and to improve the lives, health, and freedom of all peoples.
Science in Context
The scientific enterprise in the United States represents one of our country's greatest strengths. It is an enterprise characterized by intricate interrelationships between governments, industry, and universities. It draws strength from the American eagerness to innovate, our entrepreneurial spirit, and a research and technology base of considerable depth and strength. However, this enterprise cannot be expected to remain strong without attention. We must ensure that its components are functioning well, and that the interactions between the various players in it are productive.
Understanding the workings of the overall scientific and technology enterprise benefits from an awareness of the nature and practice of science itself. Science is fundamentally an inquiry-driven process; curiosity is at its core. It is a process of learning and discovery, not simply an accumulation of facts. Scientists seek to unlock the secrets that Nature holds, and since these secrets are closely held, only the clever and persistent questioner elicits answers. Thus pursuit of scientific understanding requires both intellectual dexterity as well as independence of thought. Although technology often finds its urging in necessity rather than curiosity, it requires no less resourcefulness and creativity in its pursuit.
These underpinnings in motivecuriosity versus needhave led to the designation of science as either "basic" or "applied." In the simplified versions of these descriptions, basic research is performed by academic researchers in search of knowledge, and applied research is carried out by inventors or industry researchers in pursuit of new and better products. These are artificial distinctions, as producing a new product, whether it is a microchip or a vaccine, often requires an understanding of underlying scientific principles. Similarly, insight into how or why something works often demands new tools. Thus the relationship between so-called basic and applied research is far from simple; it is instead complex, dynamic and interdependent.2
Vannevar Bush's writings in ScienceThe Endless Frontier3, which despite being more than 50 years old are still largely recognized as the basis for the Nation's existing science policy, reinforced the simplified demarcation between basic and applied research. Dr. Bush implied a linear relationship between them, with basic research directly giving rise to applied research and product development. Interestingly, Bush's own experiences as an inventor, engineer and researcher suggest that he understood the subtleties of the relationships between fundamental research and its development into applications far better than he allowed in his report. He was, in fact, a co-founder of technology-based companies while a researcher at MIT and, perhaps most importantly, directed the Office of Scientific Research and Development during WWII. In this latter position, he was responsible for bringing together scientistsmostly university researchers accustomed to pursuing their own curiositywith engineers and technicians to develop the tools that helped win the war, such as radar, the proximity fuse and the atomic bomb. He was thus well aware of the synergy that can exist between basic and applied science.
The linear model describing the relationship between basic and applied research nevertheless made for an appealingly simple policy prescription, one that has become Dr. Bush's greatest legacy to science in the U.S. It was Bush who, recognizing the downstream benefits of science performed in the laboratory, suggested emphatically in ScienceThe Endless Frontier that the federal government facilitate this research by funding both researchers in the Nation's colleges, universities and National laboratories, and the costs of training the next generation of scientists. He indicated in his report that this research be done in support of three major goals: improving national security, health, and the economy.
The Bush Report and the subsequent influx of federal dollars into the Nation's research universities shaped the scientific enterprise dramatically. Before WWII, most scientific research pursued in American universities was funded by the universities themselves, by charitable foundations, or by private industry. Federal funding for university research was restricted largely to agricultural research, done primarily in the Nation's land grant colleges. Science performed in the United States in this first mega-era of science policy was of high quality, but it was done on a small scale, and often with scant funding.
In the Bush-shaped, post-WWII era, the federal government funded an increasing share of research in the Nation's universities. These universities became centers of research excellence and the training grounds for future scientists and engineers unrivaled in the rest of the world.
Scienceand science fundingduring this second mega-era was affected greatly by the Cold War. Bush did not write his document with the intention of its being a Cold War manual; it was written in the brief window between assured victory in WWII and the onset of the Cold War. Nevertheless, the Cold War had an indelible effect on the scientific enterprise, as it provided a compelling rationale for research funding. Indeed, federal research dollars poured into science and technology during this period. The entire enterprise grew; greater numbers of research universities sprang up, more graduate students were trained to become scientists, and entire industries based on new technologies were founded. By 1961 the military-industrial complex had grown so powerful that President Eisenhower warned in his Farewell Address of the potential danger its dominance could have. He also expressed concern that either the scientists or the policymakers would become co-opted by the other.
The end of the Cold War had a profound impact on the Nation's research and development enterprise, and brought with it the end of the second mega-era of science policy. Without the backdrop of the Soviet military threat or the race to conquer outer space, convincing and often-used justifications for federal research funding became less compelling. Since then, the budgetary pressures exerted on research funding have grown. Today, while overall economic prospects appear favorable, growth of federal entitlements such as social security, health care and welfare threaten to overwhelm the federal budget and constrain discretionary spendingincluding funding for scienceeven further.
Our national experiment of federal funding for scientific research, however, has yielded enormous payoffs. In addition to fueling discoveries that save and improve lives, federally funded research represents an investment in the purest sense of the word, as it delivers a return greater than the initial outlay. Regardless of whether the relationship between basic and applied research is linear or more complex, the fact remains that the government's investment in fundamental research has yielded real dividends in every disciplinefrom astronomy to zoology.
For example, research on the molecular mechanisms of DNA, the so-called "blueprint of life," led to recombinant DNA technologygene splicingwhich in turn spawned an entire industry. Experimental and theoretical studies of the interaction of light with atoms led to the prediction of stimulated emission of coherent radiation, which became the foundation of the laser, a now-ubiquitous device with uses ranging from the exotic (surgery, precise machining, nuclear fusion) to the everyday (sewer alignment, laser pointers).
We are currently in the third mega-era of science policy. In this time of global commerce and communication a strong economic foundation will be paramount in achieving the vision of improving the lives, health and freedoms of our Nation's citizens. A fragile national economy poses potentially grave ramifications. Without a strong economy, the national defense may be compromised. Basic health care may be limited, and biomedical research becomes a luxury. And without a strong economy, all citizens face far greater obstacles to partaking in the benefits of progress.
Science, driven by the pursuit of knowledge, and technology, the outgrowth of ingenuity, will fuel our economy, foster advances in medical research, and ensure our ability to defend ourselves against ever more technologically-advanced foes. Science offers us an additional benefit. It can provide every citizennot only the scientists who are engaged in itwith information necessary to make informed decisions as voters, consumers and policymakers. For the scientific enterprise to endure, however, stronger ties between this enterprise and the American people must be forged. Finally, our position as the world's most powerful nation brings opportunities as well as responsibilities that science and its pursuit can, and should, address.
This report seeks to outline the steps needed to bring about these goals from a national, not simply a federal government, perspective. That is, the science policy described herein outlines not only possible roles for federal entities such as Congress and the Executive branch, but also implicit responsibilities of other important players in the research enterprise, such as states, universities and industry. We believe such a comprehensive approach is warranted given the highly interconnected relationships among the various players in the science and technology enterprise.
In taking this broad view, our goal is to outline general principles and guidelines and to point out the importance of applying the discoveries from fundamental science to our daily lives and our needs. What our country needs now is not a complete restructuring of our scientific enterprise, but instead an evaluation of our Nation's science and technology policies, and a determination of what changes are required to ensure the long-term health of this enterprise.
Toward an Updated National Science Policy
The prevalence of science and technology in today's society is remarkable. Transportation, communication, agriculture, and medicine are but a few of the sectors of our society that have felt the impact made by advances in research and developments in technology. Yet rarely, if ever, do we stop to contemplate the system that fosters these changes that so greatly shape our society: the scientific and engineering enterprise.
This enterprise is much like any other massive, complex system. It has tremendous inertia and can keep functioning in the absence of any apparent direction. Indeed, as with any highly successful venture, it is tempting simply to stand back, admire its success, and assume it will maintain a steady forward course on its own. To do so, however, would be a mistake. No entity as vast, interconnected, and diverse as the science and engineering enterprise can successfully operate on auto-pilot perpetually.
As stunning as the gains from this enterprise have been, continued rapid advancement in many scientific and engineering fields suggests times of even greater progress lie ahead. Dramatic developments in communication, information and computational technologies alone promise to revolutionize our lives even further. Advances in these fields will change the way science is performed and expand its capabilities dramatically. They will influence the ways we teach and learnperhaps even the way we think. Our scientific adventures are far from over.
America has, however, no intrinsic title to the dividends that science can bring; these proceeds must be earned. Past gains can be passed on to succeeding generations, but future progress requires continuous effort. The poor performance of our Nation's school-age children in math and science and the ineffectiveness of post-secondary science and engineering programs in engaging the interest of more of our Nation's youth are among the significant warning signals we ought to heed if we are to maintain our status as the world leader in science and technology.
If we adopt complacency in addressing the changes faced by the scientific enterprise in this country we risk our pre-eminence as a nation. Change in our democratic system, however, must notindeed cannotcome from any one authority. The continued search for solutions and their eventual execution will require an ongoing commitment from all sectors of the science and engineering enterprise. Outlined herein are problems that need to be addressed, and, in many cases, possible solutions. This report constitutes the beginning of a process of addressing change, not the end.
We find ourselves at an opportune time to address necessary changes. We have witnessed the benefits that have come from our earlier investments in science and technology. New discoveries in a diverse number of fields promise great advances. Our economy is strong. It is at times like this that we must look to the future.
Three basic components of the scientific enterprise require strengthening if we are to ensure its success into the 21st century and thus realize our goals of improving the lives, freedom and health of all peoples. First, as discussed in Part II, Ensuring the Flow of New Ideas, we must ensure that the well of scientific discovery does not run dry, by facilitating and encouraging advances in fundamental research.
Second, we must see that this well of discovery is not allowed to stagnate. That is, discoveries from this well must be drawn continually and applied to the development of new products or processes, (Part III, The Private Sector's Role in the Scientific Enterprise), to solutions for societal or environmental challenges (Part IV, Ensuring that Technical Decisions Made by Government Bodies are Founded in Sound Science), or simply used to establish the foundation for further discoveries.
Finally, we must strengthen both the education system we depend upon to produce the diverse array of peoplefrom scientists and engineers to technologically-proficient workers and informed voters and consumerswho draw from and replenish the well of discovery, as well as the lines of communication between scientists and engineers and the American people. These goals are outlined in Part V, Sustaining the Research EnterpriseThe Importance of Education and Communication.
The national needs that drove Vannevar Bush's vision for the role of science and technology in society are still compelling, and, as set out in the preceding section and implicit in the entire report, they remain a powerful force behind the need for a strong and sustainable scientific enterprise. Recent times have seen the emergence of a fourth rationale, as environmental threats have taken on increased urgency. Because greater scientific understanding of environmental issues is critical in addressing them properly, investment in research aimed at informing important decisions, such as whether and how to deal with specific environmental concerns, will be increasingly important. Thus four goals (national security, health, the economy and decision-making) constitute the foundation for this report and its recommendations.
Summary of Recommendations
New ideas form the foundation of the research enterprise. It is in our interests for the Nation's scientists to continue pursuing fundamental, ground-breaking research. Our experience with 50 years of government investment in basic research has demonstrated the economic benefits of this investment. To maintain our Nation's economic strength and international competitiveness, Congress should make stable and substantial federal funding for fundamental scientific research a high priority.
Notwithstanding the short-term projections of budget surpluses, the resources of the federal government are limited. This reality requires setting priorities for spending on science and engineering. Because the federal government has an irreplaceable role in funding basic research, priority for federal funding should be placed on fundamental research.
The primary channel by which the government stimulates knowledge-driven basic research is through research grants made to individual scientists and engineers. Direct funding of the individual researcher must continue to be a major component of the federal government's research investment. The federal government should continue to administer research grants that include funds for indirect costs and use a peer-reviewed selection process, to individual investigators. However, if limited funding and intense competition for grants causes researchers to seek funding only for "safe" research, the R&D enterprise as a whole will suffer. Because innovation and creativity are essential to basic research, the federal government should consider allocating a certain fraction of these grant monies specifically for creative, groundbreaking research.
The practice of science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and scientific progress in one discipline is often propelled by advances in other, seemingly unrelated, fields. It is important that the federal government fund basic research in a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines, mathematics, and engineering, and resist concentrating funds in a particular area.
Much of the research funded by the federal government is related to the mission of the agency or department that sponsors it. Although this research is typically basic in nature, it is nevertheless performed with overriding agency goals in mind. In general, research and development in federal agencies, departments, and the national laboratories should be highly relevant to, and tightly focused on, agency or department missions.
The national laboratories are a unique national resource within the research enterprise, but there are concerns that they are neither effective nor efficient in pursuing their missions. A new type of management structure for the federal labs may provide one solution and deserves exploration. To that end, a national laboratory not involved in defense missions should be selected to participate in a corporatization demonstration program in which a private contractor takes over day-to-day operations of the lab.
We also have the obligation to ensure that the money spent on basic research is invested well and that those who spend the taxpayers' money are accountable. The Government Performance and Results Act was designed to provide such accountability. Government agencies or laboratories pursuing mission-oriented research should employ the Results Act as a tool for setting priorities and getting the most out of their research programs. Moreover, in implementing the Results Act, grant-awarding agencies should define success in the aggregate, perhaps by using a research portfolio concept.
Partnerships in the research enterprise can be a valuable means of getting the most out of the federal government's investment. Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs) are an effective form of partnership that leverages federal research funding and allows rapid commercialization of federal research. When the research effort involved in a CRADA fulfills a legitimate mission requirement or research need of the federal agency or national lab, these partnerships should be encouraged and facilitated. Partnerships between university researchers and industries also have become more prevalent as a way for universities to leverage federal money and industries to capture research results without building up in-house expertise. University-industry partnerships should, therefore, be encouraged so long as the independence of the institutions and their different missions are respected.
International scientific collaborations form another important aspect of the research enterprise. While most international collaborations occur between individuals or laboratories, the U.S. participates in a number of large-scale collaborations where the costs of large scale science projects can be shared among the participants. In general, U.S. participation in international science projects should be in the national interest. The U.S. should enter into international projects when it reduces the cost of science projects we would likely pursue unilaterally or would not pursue otherwise. Our experience with international collaborations has not been uniformly successful, as our participation in Mir and the International Space Station demonstrate. Therefore, a clear set of criteria for U.S. entry into, participation in, and exit from an international scientific project should be developed.
Large-scale international projects often take place over many years, requiring stable funding over long periods. The annual appropriations cycle in Congress can lead to instability in the funding stream for these projects, affecting our ability to participate. The importance of stability of funding for large-scale, well-defined international science projects should be stressed in the budget resolution and appropriations processes.
It is also important that international science projects not appear to
be simply foreign aid in the guise of research. To that end, when the
U.S. is a major contributor of funds to projects with international participation,
funding priority must be placed on the U.S.-based
America's pre-eminent position in the world suggests new roles for U.S. science policy in the international arena. To take advantage of these opportunities, the State Department must broaden its scientific staff expertise to help formulate scientific agreements that are in America's interest. The evidence suggests that the State Department is not fulfilling this role. Mechanisms that promote coordination between various Executive branch Departments for international scientific projects must be developed. The State Department should strengthen its contingent of science advisors within its Bureau of Oceans and International, Environmental, and Scientific Affairs and draw on expertise in other agencies.
A private sector capable of translating scientific discoveries into products, advances and other developments must be an active participant in the overall science enterprise. However, there is concern that companies are focusing their research efforts on technologies that are closest to market instead of on mid-level research requiring a more substantial investment. Capitalization of new technology based companies, especially those that are focused on more long-term, basic research, should be encouraged. In addition, the R&D tax credit should be extended permanently, and needlessly onerous regulations that inhibit corporate research should be eliminated.
Partnerships meant to bring about technology development also are important. Well-structured university-industry partnerships can create symbiotic relationships rewarding to both parties. These interactions and collaborations, which may or may not involve formal partnerships, are a critical element in the technology transfer process and should be encouraged.
Partnerships that tie together the efforts of state governments, industries, and academia also show great promise in stimulating research and economic development. Indeed, states appear far better suited than the federal government to foster economic development through technology-based industry. As the principal beneficiaries, the states should be encouraged to play a greater role in promoting the development of high-tech industries, both through their support of colleges and research universities and through interactions between these institutions and the private sector.
The university community, too, has a role in improving research capabilities throughout its ranks, especially in states or regions trying to attract more federal R&D funding and high-tech industries. Major research universities should cultivate working relationships with less well-established research universities and technical colleges in research areas where there is mutual interest and expertise and consider submitting, where appropriate, joint grant proposals. Less research-intensive colleges and universities should consider developing scientific or technological expertise in niche areas that complement local expertise and contribute to local economic development strategies.
To exploit the advances made in government laboratories and universities, companies must keep abreast of these developments. The RAND Corporation's RaDiUS database and the National Library of Medicine's PubMed database serve useful purposes in disseminating information. Consider expanding RaDiUS and PubMed databases to make them both comprehensive and as widely available as possible.
Intellectual property protections are critical to stimulating the private sector to develop scientific and engineering discoveries for the market. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which granted the licensing rights of new technologies to the researchers who discover them, has served both the university and commercial sectors reasonably well. A review of intellectual property issues may be necessary to ensure that an acceptable balance is struck between stimulating the development of scientific research into marketable technologies and maintaining effective dissemination of research results.
While the federal government may, in certain circumstances, fund applied research, there is a risk that using federal funds to bridge the mid-level research gap could lead to unwarranted market interventions and less funding for basic research. It is important, therefore, for companies to realize the contribution investments in mid-level research can make to their competitiveness. The private sector must recognize and take responsibility for the performance of research. The federal government may consider supplementary funding for private-sector research projects when the research is in the national interest. Congress should develop clear criteria, including peer review, to be used in determining which projects warrant federal funding.
Science and engineering also provide the basis for making decisions as a society, as corporations and as individuals. Science can inform policy issues, but it cannot decide them. In many cases science simply does not have the answer, or provides answers with varying degrees of uncertainty. If science is to inform policy, we must commit sufficient resources to get the answers regulators need to make good decisions. At the earliest possible stages of the regulatory process, Congress and the Executive branch must work together to identify future issues that will require scientific analysis. Sufficient funding to carry out these research agendas must be provided and should not be overly concentrated in regulatory agencies.
For science to play any real role in legal and policy decisions, the scientists performing the research need to be seen as honest brokers. One simple but important step in facilitating an atmosphere of trust between the scientific and the legal and regulatory communities is for scientists and engineers to engage in open disclosure regarding their professional background, affiliations and their means of support. Scientists and engineers should be required to divulge their credentials, provide a resume, and indicate their funding sources and affiliations when formally offering expert advice to decision-makers. The scientific opinions these experts offer also should stand up to challenges from the scientific community. To ensure that decision-makers are getting sound analysis, all federal government agencies pursuing scientific research, particularly regulatory agencies, should develop and use standardized peer review procedures.
Peer review constitutes the beginning, not the end, of the scientific process, as disagreement over peer-reviewed conclusions and data stimulate debates that are an integral part of the process of science. Eventually, scientists generate enough new data to bring light to previously uncertain findings. Decision-makers must recognize that uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of the scientific process. Regulatory decisions made in the context of rapidly changing areas of inquiry should be re-evaluated at appropriate times.
Aside from being based on a sound scientific foundation, regulatory decisions must also make practical sense. The importance of risk assessment has too often been overlooked in making policy. We must accept that we cannot reduce every risk in our lives to zero and must learn to deploy limited resources to the greatest effect. Comprehensive risk analysis should be standard practice in regulatory agencies. Moreover, a greater effort should be made to communicate various risks to the public in understandable terms, perhaps by using comparisons that place risks in the context of other, more recognizable ones.
The judicial branch of government increasingly requires access to sound scientific advice. Scientific discourse in a trial is usually highly contentious, but federal judges have recently been given the authority to act as gatekeepers to exclude unreliable science from the courtroom. More and more judges will seek out qualified scientists to assist them in addressing complex scientific questions. How these experts are selected promises to be an important step in the judicial process. Efforts designed to identify highly qualified, impartial experts to provide advice to the courts for scientific and technical decisions must be encouraged.
In Congress, science policy and funding remain scattered piecemeal over a broad range of committees and subcommittees. Similarly, in the Executive branch, science is spread out over numerous agencies and departments. These diffusive arrangements make effective oversight and timely decision making extremely difficult. Wherever possible, Congressional committees considering scientific issues should consider holding joint hearings and perhaps even writing joint authorization bills.
No factor is more important in maintaining a sound R&D enterprise than education. Yet, student performance on the recent Third International Math and Science Study highlights the shortcomings of current K-12 science and math education in the U.S. We must expect more from our Nation's educators and students if we are to build on the accomplishments of previous generations. New modes of teaching math and science are required. Curricula for all elementary and secondary years that are rigorous in content, emphasize the mastery of fundamental scientific and mathematical concepts as well as the modes of scientific inquiry, and encourage the natural curiosity of children must be developed.
Perhaps as important, it is necessary that a sufficient quantity of teachers well-versed in math and science be available. Programs that encourage recruitment of qualified math and science teachers, such as flexible credential programs, must be encouraged. In general, future math and science teachers should be expected to have had at least one college course in the type of science or math they teach, and, preferably, a minor. Ongoing professional development for existing teachers also is important. Another disincentive to entry into the teaching profession for those with a technical degree is the relatively low salaries K-12 teaching jobs offer compared to alternative opportunities. To attract qualified science and math teachers, salaries that make the profession competitive may need to be offered. School districts should consider merit pay or other incentives as a way to reward and retain good K-12 science and math teachers.
The revolution in information technology has brought with it exciting opportunities for innovative advances in education and learning. As promising as these new technologies are, however, their haphazard application has the potential to adversely affect learning. A greater fraction of the federal government's spending on education should be spent on research programs aimed at improving curricula and increasing the effectiveness of science and math teaching.
Graduate education in the sciences and engineering must strike a careful balance between continuing to produce the world's premier scientists and engineers and offering enough flexibility so that students with other ambitions are not discouraged from embarking on further education in math, science, or engineering. While continuing to train scientists and engineers of unsurpassed quality, higher education should also prepare students who plan to seek careers outside of academia by increasing flexibility in graduate training programs. Specifically, Ph.D. programs should allow students to pursue coursework and gain relevant experience outside their specific area of research.
The training of scientists and engineers in the U.S. occurs largely through an apprenticeship model in which a student learns how to perform research through hands-on experience under the guidance of the student's thesis advisor. A result of this link between education and research is that students and post-doctoral researchers are responsible for actually performing much of the federally-funded research done in universities. Mechanisms for direct federal funding of post-docs are already relatively common. Expansion of these programs to include greater numbers of graduate students in math, science and engineering should be explored.
Increased support for Masters programs would allow students to pursue an interest in science without making the long commitment to obtaining a Ph.D., and thus attract greater numbers of students to careers in science and technology. More university science programs should institute specially-designed Masters of Science degree programs as an option for allowing graduate study that does not entail a commitment to the Ph.D.
The length of time involved and the commensurate forfeiture of income and benefits in graduate training in the sciences and engineering is a clear disincentive to students deciding between graduate training in the sciences and other options. Universities should be encouraged to put controls on the length of time spent in graduate school and post-doctoral study, and to recognize that they cannot attract talented young people without providing adequate compensation and benefits.
Educating the general public about the benefits and grandeur of science is also needed to promote an informed citizenry and maintain support for science. Both journalists and scientists have responsibilities in communicating the achievements of science. However, the evidence suggests that the gap between scientists and journalists is wide and may be getting wider. Closing it will require that scientists and journalists gain a greater appreciation for how the other operates. Universities should consider offering scientists, as part of their graduate training, the opportunity to take at least one course in journalism or communication. Journalism schools should also encourage journalists to take at least one course in scientific writing.
As important as bridging the gap between scientists and the media is, there is no substitute for scientists speaking directly to people about their work. In part because science must compete for discretionary funding with disparate interests, engaging the public's interest in science through direct interaction is crucial. All too often, however, scientists or engineers who decide to spend time talking to the media or the public pay a high price professionally, as such activities take precious time away from their work, and may thus imperil their ability to compete for grants or tenure. Scientists and engineers should be encouraged to take time away from their research to educate the public about the nature and importance of their work. Those who do so, including tenure-track university researchers, should not be penalized by their employers or peers.
The results of research sponsored by the Federal government also needs to be more readily available to the general public, both to inform them and to demonstrate that they are getting value for the money the government spends on research. Government agencies have a responsibility to make the results of federally-funded research widely available. Plain English summaries of research describing its results and implications should be prepared and widely distributed, including posting on the Internet.
1. The Role of Science in Making Good Decisions, June 10, 1998.
2. While recognizing the intricacy of the relationship between basic and applied research, the terms, however inadequate, have become part of the scientific vernacular and are therefore useful. To be clear, the term "basic" research in this document refers to research that is driven largely or entirely by the desire to better understand a given system or property, and is used interchangeably with terms such as "fundamental" or "understanding-driven" research. "Applied" research describes research that is done largely or entirely with the goal of perfecting a process or product.
3. Communicating Science and Engineering in a Sound-Bite World, May 14, 1998
4. In general, the term "science" in this report is used in its broadest form, and, unless stated otherwise, should be interpreted as including the physical, natural, life and social sciences, mathematics and engineering.
Vernon J. Ehlers, Member, U.S. House of Representatives (R-MI), is vice chairman of the House Science Committee, vice chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Excerpted from A Report to Congress by the House Committee on Science, Toward a New National Science Policy, September 24, 1998, Washington, DC.