Skip to main content

OSTP Director Affirms Administration’s Support for Basic Research

VIDEO: Highlights from John Holdren’s keynote address at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum
[Credit: AAAS/Carla Schaffer]

Presidential science advisor John Holdren had sharp words yesterday for recent efforts in Congress that would limit funding by the National Science Foundation to research that explicitly aims to advance national interests.

Because basic research by its very nature tries to expand knowledge without special considerations for practical applications, the proposed restrictions “would throw the basic research baby out with the bathwater,” said Holdren in his keynote address at the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Forum on 2 May.

Along with other federal R&D funding agencies, NSF has long used a system of peer-review to evaluate funding proposals, but members of Congress have recently leveled two attacks on this process. In March, an amendment to the bill funding the government for the rest of Fiscal Year 2013 required the NSF director to specify how any grant awarded to political science research would promote national security or U.S. economic interests. Since then, Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) has proposed a measure that would make the same requirement for all NSF grants.


Presidential science advisor John Holdren, left, and AAAS President Phillip Sharp, right. [Credit: AAAS/Robert Beets]

Such restrictions overlook the fact that while basic research can lead to major advances for society, this is by chance, not design, Holdren said. As an example, he questioned whether the NSF director should have known that a grant for a project on search algorithms awarded to Larry Page and Sergey Brin before they co-founded Google would lead to a revolution in how people find information.

“It makes no sense at all to confine taxpayer support to those projects for which a likely direct contribution to the national interest can be identified in advance, unless of course the national interest is defined to include expanding the boundaries of knowledge,” he said.

Holdren is not opposed to reviewing the implementation of the peer-review process at individual agencies from time to time, but he said that “fiddling in any fundamental way with the model of judging research proposals via review by scientific experts in the relevant fields would place at risk the world-leading quality of this nation’s scientific and engineering enterprises.”

Nor should the social and behavioral sciences be held to any different standard, Holdren said. Researchers in these fields develop and test hypotheses, publish their results in peer-reviewed journals and archive their data so others can replicate their results. And, while much of this research could be categorized as basic science, these disciplines also yield practical applications that benefit society. For example, “political science helps us understand the motives and actions of nations and peoples around the world, strengthening foreign policy, and it helps us understand our own democracy and how to make it stronger.”

He cited the president’s budget for FY 2014 as a reflection of the administration’s understanding that science and technology are central to addressing the major challenges facing society today, and he further described other elements of this budget request in a conversation with AAAS President Phillip Sharp that followed the keynote address.


Matt Hourihan presents data, analysis of the proposed FY2014 budget.

The budget request includes $3.1 billion for education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), an increase of 6.7% over 2012, with the goal of producing 1 million new STEM graduates over the next decade and recruiting and preparing 100,000 high-quality STEM teachers.

Under the proposal, the number of STEM education initiatives would decrease by about 50 percent, but Holdren described this change as an effort to consolidate disparate programs currently spread across more than a dozen agencies, in order to better coordinate and evaluate their progress. The new budget would focus resources on three main agencies: the Department of Education for K-12 initiatives, NSF for higher-education initiatives and the Smithsonian for public outreach and engagement.

The president’s budget request also entails a repeal of sequestration. But if this doesn’t happen—and many consider a repeal unlikely—then reconciling these amounts with the spending caps of sequestration will be a major challenge, which AAAS R&D Budget Analysis Program Director Matt Hourihan highlighted in an analysis that was also part of the session.

“The big question of course is this gap between the administration’s request and the current discretionary spending caps,” he said, noting that there is a $91 billion difference between what Congress can appropriate and what the administration is asking for. “Answering that question will then theoretically provide some additional insight into … whether science has hit a speed bump or has crossed over the fiscal cliff into this austerity valley with depressed R&D funding over the next many years.”

This fiscal climate for S&T differs dramatically from those in China, India and South Korea, where governments are focused squarely on science and engineering research and education.

In the second half of the AAAS session, Jeannette Wing, vice president and head of Microsoft Research International, Microsoft Corporation described how China, followed a decade later by India, has since the 1990s been ramping up investments in science and technology and transforming the higher-education and research enterprise.

South Korea is aiming to overhaul its own approach to S&T, according Jong-Guk Song, president of the Science and Technology Policy Institute in the Republic of Korea. He described plans for a “paradigm shift” that would foster a “creative economy” centering on job creation partly through investing in science and technology. Central to these plans is a strategy for nurturing entrepreneurship and startup companies that would diverge from traditional approaches in South Korea, which have historically valued applied research over creative basic research, been unforgiving of failure and had high barriers to entry into the market, according to Song.


Jong-Guk Song (left), AAAS President Phillip Sharp (near right) and Jeannette Wing (far right).


Science editorial about limits to NSF funding of political science

Coverage of the NSF peer-review debate, from ScienceInsider

Related Scientific Disciplines