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William H. Press: Benefits of Science Belong to the Patient Investors

The American public likes scientists almost as much as it likes firefighters and teachers. And, economists say that investments in basic research have offered tremendous returns over the past 50 years. Why, then, do researchers in the United States find themselves on the precipice of a devastating financial cliff, facing $54 billion in across-the-board funding cuts by 1 March unless the U.S. Congress can agree on a budget fix?

At the AAAS Annual Meeting, AAAS President William H. Press said the scientific community needs to make a more powerful and sophisticated case that researchers are “the geese that lay the golden eggs” and not “just another pig at the trough.”

One way to do that, he suggested in his Presidential Address, is to make a case for long-term and persistent investment in basic research as the best way to reap the economic and societal benefits that science offers.

Press said that scientific discovery follows a pattern that statisticians call a “heavy-tailed distribution.” Simply put, huge scientific game-changers like the discovery of penicillin or the mix of quantum mechanics and atomic theory that brought about modern computing and electronics are only slightly less likely to happen than smaller-scale discoveries. “Science’s heavy tail allows us to expect even greater future discoveries,” he said, “even though we can’t predict when they will occur.”

With a pattern like that, Press said, it’s the patient investors—whether they be companies or countries—who reap the bounty by consistently maintaining their basic research investments over time.

It’s an idea that the public may already understand, almost intuitively, Press wrote in a recent Science editorial. When asked what they like about science, people praise its beneficial effects on human health and wealth, environmental protection and its idealistic empowerment of young people, but “few give answers that imply the short time horizons that motivate most economic activity.”

At the same time, it’s clear that basic research has significant economic benefits. Most studies show high annual rates of return on investments in basic research, Press said, “variously estimated as being between 20% and 60%.”

The problem, he said, is that those rewards don’t flow directly to those who take on the risks of investment. “It’s the nature of basic research that the returns are thrown out to the world” as a public good, Press noted, which discourages private investment.

“Therefore, if the full social potential of this public good is to be realized, the source of investment must come from government,” he said.

Government funding for basic research has increased to keep pace with the economy, picking up the slack from American industry as it decreased its basic research investments 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.”

AAAS President Williams H.Press
Credit AAAS Staff

Press said the creation of more geographic research hubs like California’s Silicon Valley and the Route 128 corridor near Boston, where industry clusters around research universities, could remedy this situation somewhat by keeping the returns of R&D in the same area as its investors.

But national culture may play a role in whether countries are able to take advantage of the payoffs of science. Countries like China and regions like Western and Central Europe, with their long view of history, Press said, may be the patient investors poised to benefit from basic research’s biggest returns.

In contrast, countries like the United States, Canada and Australia “have, at least in my mind, a wonderful frontier, short-term pragmatism.” If researchers can convince the American public that basic research, applied research, and the social benefits of science are part of a single, unified enterprise, he said, the country will be able to maintain the exponential economic growth it has enjoyed as a result of R&D investment.

Press is the Warren J. and Viola M. Raymer Professor in Computer Science and Integrative Biology at the University of Texas, Austin. His presidential address was preceded by remarks by the meeting’s two local co-chairs: Drew Gilpin Faust, president of Harvard University; and Henri A. Termeer, retired chairman, president and CEO of Genzyme Corporation.

On 18 February, at the end of the 2013 meeting, Press will turn over duties to AAAS President-Elect Phillip A. Sharp and begin a one-year term as chair of the AAAS Board of Directors. Sharp, a 1993 Nobel Prize winner, is Institute Professor at the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.

Watch President William H. Press’ opening address to open the 2013 Annual Meeting.