Richard L. Garwin: "R&D Opportunities and Needs for the Economic Transition"

Richard L. Garwin

With the United States struggling to recover from an historic recession, policymakers should press to strengthen the nation's economic foundation by enhancing the climate for innovation, physicist and inventor Richard L. Garwin told a AAAS audience.

Garwin, one of the most influential figures in science during the last half-century, said in the 2009 William D. Carey Lecture that the nation must use new approaches and new tools to innovate answers to a range of challenges now facing the planet. Research and development will be important in addressing energy, public health, education and other critical issues, Garwin said, but policymakers also must make more effective use of sophisticated analysis and computer-modeling in the search for solutions.

Failure to make the transition to a more productive, innovation-driven economy could undermine the nation's strength and threaten its standing as a global leader, Garwin said.

"The economic transition of which I speak is the one that is evident if the United States is to succeed or even to survive in recognizable form," he said. "In recent years, the financial sector has accounted for some 40% of all profits in the United States, and this was clearly unsustainable.... This was a bubble that could not survive. It may be a bubble that we cannot survive."

In surveying perspectives and tools needed to improve U.S. innovation, Garwin's talk ranged widely, from his own role in developing global positioning technology and landmark computer algorithms to his views on the patent system and the future of nuclear energy.

The annual lecture is named for the late William Carey, who served as executive officer of AAAS from 1975-1987. He played a pivotal role in shaping the U.S. environment for science and technology, and was the catalyst for study of research and development in the federal budget and other initiatives which serve as the foundation for many of today's AAAS programs. The lectureship, started in 1989, recognizes individuals who exemplify Carey's leadership on S&T public policy issues.

Garwin's lecture was delivered 30 April during the annual AAAS Forum on Science & Technology Policy, which drew nearly 600 leaders from U.S. and foreign governments, businesses, research centers, and universities to Washington, D.C. Meeting just blocks from the White House, the Forum is the largest and most important annual science and technology policy conference in the United States, focusing on federal budget and R&D issues; public- and private-sector research; education; innovation; and other high-profile domestic and international S&T issues. It is organized by AAAS Science & Policy Programs.

As a researcher, writer, and government adviser, Garwin has exerted deep influence on science and science policy since the early 1950s, especially in defense fields. He was one of the architects of the hydrogen bomb, and he has advised the U.S. government on national security matters since the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. He joined IBM in 1952, and today is IBM Fellow Emeritus at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center and adjunct professor of physics at Columbia University. He is among a select few researchers elected to all three U.S. National Academies—the National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine.

Garwin opened his lecture by suggesting that much of the United States' economic growth in recent years was driven by the sale of economic instruments that continually escalated in value while producing little by way of tangible assets or products. "The greater return (profit) on investment in the financial sector sucked investment capital out of the real sectors of the economy, as well as diverting some of the best people," he said. "Salaries and bonuses exceeding $1 million caused a lot of questioning as to why a person would want to have a job in R&D or be a college professor."

Garwin welcomed the recent commitment of U.S. President Barack Obama to raise U.S. R&D spending to 3% of the gross domestic product, up from 2.66% currently. "This will provide economic stimulus," Garwin said, "and, far more than most stimulus spending, is expected to pay off in societal benefit and national strength."

Historically, government innovation policy can have a transformative effect—Garwin cited the development of energy-efficient refrigerators after the energy crisis of the 1970s, for example, or the more recent emergence of the Internet. Today, however, innovation requires not only R&D investment, but policy refinements and use of best analytic tools.

As government undertakes R&D projects, it should recall how competition breeds better, more efficient outcomes, he said. While reforms in the U.S. patent process might be needed, government and industry should remember that sometimes the economic and social value of inventions can be so immediate and so significant that the patent process should be bypassed.

As an example, he cited the invention of the scanning tunneling microscope by researchers at IBM's Zurich Laboratory. The device has been crucial in development of improved semiconductors and nanotechnology, and the inventors won the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics. As the invention emerged, Garwin said, "IBM decided that this enormously powerful technology should not be delayed for the patent process, which, properly done, would have included a large amount of internal work to patent also alternative approaches. And it can hardly be argued that the world was worse for this decision."

Garwin talked at length about the need for increased and more effective use of "informed analysis" and computer modeling to support R&D and aid innovation. Such modeling can be used to not only in research and development, but in the development of public policy.

He described his work a few years ago in organizing a workshop to explore policy options for dealing with avian flu if it became readily transmissible among humans. "We were appalled to learn that not much more was known about practical measures to prevent transmission of the disease than was available in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19," he said.

But an ingenious computer simulation by a team at Los Alamos National Laboratory illustrated graphically how the virus might begin with a few cases and explode into a pandemic—and what steps policymakers could take to slow transmission while they took steps to restrict travel and get stocks of vaccines and anti-viral medicine in place. The result was only illustrative because the efficacy of the various measures was not established.

As for the long-term future of nuclear power, Garwin said that modeling should support not just the technological development, but the understanding of the available options. For example, breeder reactors have been seen as potentially far more fuel-efficient than conventional light-water reactors, but breeders are currently seen as having higher investment cost and as non-competitive with light-water reactors in the present environment of low-cost uranium.

No commercial breeders are now operating, Garwin said. . He proposed establishing an international breeder reactor laboratory that would study and evaluate three types of reactor, including their specific fuel forms and fuel cycles.

"This laboratory would develop and use an advanced and evolving state-of-the-art suite of computer simulation tools, with the purpose of providing reliable simulation and modeling of the performance of each of the reactor types," he explained. "If, after 10 or 20 years, the effort yielded a proposed system that was demonstrated in credible simulation to be as safe as existing light-water reactors and economically competitive with them, then a prototype could be built to verify the simulations."

In his conclusion, Garwin acknowledged that modeling and simulation are imperfect and have sometimes been used to provide extensive and misleading analysis on the basis of slanted assumptions. But, he said, simulations will evolve and improve if subjected to the continual evaluation that is typical of the science enterprise.

"Modeling and simulation has finally come into its own," he said. "It remains to be seen whether this new currency will be properly valued or debased. Not only do the models need to be challenged and validated, but the assumptions need to be carefully inspected."