New Research Approach Vital to Preserving U.S. Innovation Leadership

Susan Hockfield, chair of the AAAS Board of Directors, opens the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy with a call to scientists to work together to defend the scientific enterprise and its institutions. | Mark Francis Jones/CJVISIONS.COM

Health care sciences and manufacturing hold the key to advancing scientific and technological innovation in the United States and safeguarding U.S. global leadership, said Susan Hockfield, chair of the Board of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, during the AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy.

To address the “innovation challenge,” Hockfield, a neuroscientist and president emerita of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called on the scientific community to adopt a research method that puts multidisciplinary scientific teams front and center to capitalize on broad expertise in the pursuit of research goals, an approach known as the convergence model.

Two looming economic challenges – health care and manufacturing – would benefit from a research reset, she said, particularly as the U.S. faces an aging population, rising health care costs and growing social inequality, and the manufacturing sector struggles with the loss of one-third of its workforce beginning in 2000, a drop accelerated by the 2008 financial crisis. The convergence research approach expands the knowledge base of participating scientists and engineers and speeds the delivery of innovations to the marketplace. 

The scientific community also needs to change by looking beyond the individual triumphs of its stars to “nurturing the scientific enterprise,” Hockfield added. “Achieving success in science is a team sport, and our institutions make it possible for scientists to take part. … None of science’s successes are solely ‘mine’ or ‘yours.’ They are all ‘ours,’ and it is our shared responsibility to actively defend the institutions that enable them and contribute so importantly to our well-being and prosperity.”

The opening keynote address set the tone for the 43rd annual AAAS Policy Forum on Science & Technology, which gathers public policy, science and technology experts to examine challenges at the nexus of science and policy. The two-day forum, beginning on June 21 at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., examined “U.S. Science, Innovation and Competitiveness: Current Status and Future Imperative” from multiple perspectives.

“If we want to encourage a recommitment to innovation-based economic growth, we must also recommit ourselves to the defense of our research and education enterprises that provide unrivaled opportunities for both individual success and societal advance,” Hockfield said.

The forum opened against a backdrop of competing realities. Scientific discoveries are unfolding at a striking pace, while scientific institutions face ideological and political challenges. “Skepticism abounds about the utility of the research enterprise and even higher education,” Hockfield said. “Also under attack are many of the core principles that unite scientists: that objective reality can be discovered; that anyone can compete in a game governed by ideas; that disagreements are best resolved by assembling facts to test competing views; and that science and the application of scientific principles have the capacity to improve lives.”

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, said the partnership between the federal government and scientific institutions needs to be protected, having advanced the U.S. economy and improved public health and quality of life. | Mark Francis Jones/CJVISIONS.COM

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, presented at the forum on the longstanding scientific collaboration between the federal government and U.S. academic research institutions, an alliance that made the U.S. home to the world’s leading universities and the hub of global innovation. 

Now, the partnership, Coleman said, is endangered by a pair of threats – a proposal to eliminate federal reimbursement rates, known as indirect costs, paid to universities to cover expenses they incur while running facilities used to conduct federally selected research, and inaction on the ballooning federal budget deficit, slated to reach $1 trillion in 18 months.

“Our economy, health and national security all depend on the ability to educate scientists, engineers, researchers and innovators of the future, talented individuals who will, in turn, create the medicines and technologies that will drive our economy and well-being,” Coleman said. “We absolutely must fight to keep the university-government partnership strong. This means continuing to robustly invest in research, as well as student aid, at the federal level. It also means continuing to welcome foreign talent while at the same time taking steps to do better growing our own domestic talent base.”

In an update of U.S. federal support for science, Matt Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, said congressional appropriators are working to boost science spending above levels outlined in the president’s fiscal 2019 budget proposal. In fiscal 2018, Congress reversed most of the administration’s proposed cuts to science agencies. 

Looking to the future, though, Hourihan said the federal budget deficit will soon crowd out support for the discretionary scientific spending accounts, as will the projected jump in the cost of the mandatory Social Security and Medicare programs as baby boomers retire. “The long-term forecast does not look good,” he said.

Innovation that springs from scientific research in health care and manufacturing presents the way forward, said Hockfield, because these sectors are so fundamental. Health care encompasses 17% of the U.S. economy and will soon reach 20%. It employs 1.2 million people and its pharmaceutical and medical-device businesses pay good wages that can help balance social inequities. 

But the United States’ position as a leader in innovation is under pressure from China, Ireland, Singapore, the U.K. and such catchup efforts are beginning to show, said Hockfield. Last year, for instance, the U.S. pharmaceutical sector ran a $56 billion trade deficit with the U.S. 

Emerging medical therapies such as nanotechnology drug-delivery systems, diagnostic predictive disease tools and treatments for genetic disorders can reduce health care costs in the U.S., the highest among developed nations.

Accelerating the establishment of cross-disciplinary government research programs like the Precision Medicine Initiative, which seeks to leverage human genetic, environmental and lifestyle differences for medical discoveries, and taking a similar tack with university research institutions would boost innovation, Hockfield noted. Cross-agency planning in the federal government is also effective. 

“We all need to put our heads together, no matter what our fields and backgrounds, to think in new ways about how to do science and develop technologies to make this major part of our economy as dynamic and productive as possible,” she said.

Such an approach is also necessary to revive the manufacturing sector, which accounts for 12% of GDP. The U.S. manufacturing sector is already being outpaced by competitors who are putting in place innovative manufacturing technologies, she said.

Hockfield called for renewed federal investment in advanced manufacturing institutes, similar to the existing 14 university research institutes; improved information sharing among the university institutes that partner with the private sector and state and local governments; and workforce training through community colleges, online courses and robots designed to help, not replace, workers.

Investment in advanced manufacturing research is paramount, she said, to fostering a host of promising technologies such as “digital production, advanced materials, nanomanufacturing, biofabrication, mass customization and 3D printing.”

“These revolutionary manufacturing technologies with almost boundless potential, and the countries that think the most innovatively about how to produce them, will be the countries that in the decades ahead will lead economically,” Hockfield said. “We need to be one of those countries.”

[Associated image: Mark Francis Jones/CJVISIONS.COM]