America COMPETES To Win In The Science Race

2016-05-13T13:00:31+00:00 May 13, 2016|
Senator Ed Markey (MA) (Credit: Wikimedia)

(Click to enlarge) Senator Ed Markey (MA) (Credit: Wikimedia)

The U.S. has historically held the top spot for science and a global destination for burgeoning technologies. While the nation is still the largest investor in public and private research and development, contributing 27 percent of global research and development investment, China is increasing their support and is catching up (currently at 20 percent), with other countries, such as India and Japan, following suit. Congress wants the U.S. to maintain its science primacy and is seeking expert input toward this goal. Witnesses from government, academia, and industry answered the call by bringing forth concrete suggestions for how government can — and should — support the scientific community.

Maintaining and growing the American science and technology enterprise is addressed in the bipartisan America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology Education and Science Act of 2007 (COMPETES), which was reauthorized in 2010 and is due for reauthorization. COMPETES authorizes federal investment in science; early-stage technology research and development; and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. In a lead-up to reauthorizing the COMPETES Act, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing to determine the federal government’s role in advancing scientific research.

During the hearing, expert panelists unanimously supported increasing science funding. Dr. Jeannette Wing (Corporate Vice President for Research, Microsoft) discussed the conclusions of an American Academy of Arts and Sciences report, Restoring the Foundation- the Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream, which recommends at least a four percent annual increase in federal research and development investment to provide sustainable growth. Dr. David Munson (Dean of Engineering, University of Michigan) agreed, ‘Probably the greatest inefficiency in the federal research system is caused by the low funding rates of many agencies. For example, at the [National Science Foundation], the fraction of research proposals that are funded has slipped to 20 percent.” The time spent writing and reviewing unfunded proposals is therefore slowing down investigators’ routes toward successful research. He postulated that increasing research agency funding would allow university faculty to spend more of their time doing research, hopefully with a “balance between pure and applied research.” Dr. Kelvin Droegemeier (Vice Chair, National Science Board) explained that a lack of predictability in agency budgets year to year also makes it hard to plan for research.

There was debatebetween the panelistsaround how various science disciplines should be funded. Senator Ed Markey (MA) cautioned that decisions regarding which disciplines are funded should not be made based on politics, referencing members of the U.S. House who have “singled  out certain sciences as ‘winners’ and other sciences as ‘losers,’ authorizing funding increases for the former and decreases for the ‘loser’ sciences.” Dr. Munson and Dr. Wing both agreed “100 percent” that research should be guided by scientific experts, not policymakers. While supporting the peer-review process for science grants, Dr. Wing noted that researchers should ideally aim to maximize benefits to tax payers. However, Dr. Robert D. Atkinson (President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation) believes economic impacts from research should play a role in funding decisions, and Dr. Droegemeier believes it is within Congress’ remit to help highlight which research would be the most valuable.

Sen. Markey stressed the importance of the geosciences by submitting for the record a letter from 100 U.S. universities, research institutions, and scientific professional societies that “provides concrete examples of how geoscience is essential to tackling national challenges ranging from workforce development in the energy sector to mitigating the impact of hurricanes through improved forecasting and response.” He also submitted a second letter, signed by 19 large geoscience organizations, detailing “how geoscience plays a critical role in tackling national challenges in water and mineral resources, energy independence, environmental issues, Earth’s climate and ocean systems, and mitigation of natural hazards.” The Consortium for Ocean Leadership was a cosignatory on both letters.

While research funding is important, Dr. Atkinson noted university-industry partnerships are integral for improving America’s role in science and innovation. Funding allocations of these partnerships differ markedly, with only two percent of the NSF budget funding university-industry partnerships. Outside of NSF grants, some universities are successful in receiving industry funding (e.g., Duke University receives 18 percent of research funds from industry) while others receive almost no industrial funds (e.g., Brown University receives less than one percent). According to Dr. Atkinson, “If the U.S. doesn’t commercialize its own [research and development], a competitor nation likely will.” While commercializing research seems mutually beneficial, the start-up process can be grueling according to Dr. Munson, the head of a startup company founded from his engineering research. Dr. Atkinson suggested that commercialization should occur in a budget-neutral way, which could be achieved by expanding the Startup America Initiative, a White House Initiative launched in 2011, to include already existing and successful state-funded commercialization programs. Additionally, he said lawmakers could reform and expand the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program to allow awardees to spend a small amount of research money toward commercialization.

Increasing support for STEM education was unilaterally supported by the witnesses and the committee, with Dr. Droegemeier exclaiming, “Our nation thrives on a STEM capable workforce!” STEM education is currently underwhelming in several arenas; according to Senator Gary Peters (MI), 60 percent of students who matriculate in STEM majors do not complete the degree. A resulting lack of computer science graduates, specifically, means that only 10 percent of computer science jobs in the U.S. will be filled by U.S. graduates, according to Dr. Wing. To improve undergraduate STEM retention rates, Dr. Droegemeier suggested increasing undergraduate research opportunities. Dr. David Munson (Dean of Engineering, University of Michigan) believes that STEM can be better integrated in high school programs to mitigate the problem of underprepared college students and that more women and underrepresented minorities should be encouraged to participate in STEM. The call for more diversity in STEM was echoed by all witnesses. More generally, Dr. Atkinson noted his support of President Obama’s recent initiative in computer scienc
e education to increase STEM education and the Manufacturing Universities Act to fund certain universities focused on manufacturing education and research partnerships.

The witnesses provided additional suggestions for ways to increase U.S. competiveness in the global research and development sphere. Dr. Droegemeier asserted that the federal government should focus on funding and facilitating innovation and basic research. All panelists proposed reducing the administrative burden and duplication of resources, with Dr. Munson quoting that upwards of 40 percent of a university investigator’s time is spent doing non-research activities.

The panel presented numerous pathways for government to increase its support of scientific research and development, technology, and STEM; however, many of their suggestions require significant investment. In the current political climate with tight funding constraints, it remains unclear whether Congress’ zest for success in science will overcome its pursed pockets.