Inside American R&D – Part IV: The Road Ahead

Rising Above the Gathering Storm. That was the ominous title of a report by a commission of respected scientists who urged fast action to confront increased foreign competition and flat federal and corporate spending that imperils United States dominance in research and development.

The commission was appointed in 2007 by the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, and it concluded that the problem was so critical the nation should do no less than double government spending on research and vastly increase education in science, technology and math, starting with an investment of $19 billion in just the first year.

Most of the recommendations got lost in Congress. There’s been no shortage of detailed proposals for safeguarding America’s traditional competitive edge in R&D. But there’s also been no money. And since the Gathering Storm report things have gotten only worse—the commission reported last year in a follow-up study it called The Gathering Storm Revisited: Approaching Category 5—while economic rivals such as India and China continue to make gains.

“The budgetary pressures now faced by the nation make such investments extremely difficult,” the commission members said. Without them, however, “the consequences, in terms of unemployment and related costs, will likely be immense.”

Proposals for firming up America’s precarious hold on primacy in R&D range from the liberal idea of making more visas available for mathematicians and engineers to the conservative one of enforcing Cold War-era curbs on the transfer of technology to China—including blocking acquisitions of American technology companies by the Chinese, such as the attempted takeover of Unocal by the Chinese state oil company and the merger of 3Com with Huawei Technologies.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has pushed for not only more stable, consistent federal money for R&D, along with reform of those visa rules, but also programs to help small businesses translate research into commercial applications, incentives for investors to support U.S. start-up companies, and the appointment of science attachés in U.S. embassies abroad to monitor developments in foreign R&D.

Still others have proposed that the federal government use its huge IT purchasing power to require that suppliers conduct research at home, with U.S.-citizen researchers.

Some observers say what’s really needed is for the U.S. to do a better job of the things it’s always done best—for corporations and university research labs to work together, all supported by federal research.

“A lot of this work is built on personal relationships,” says Howard Gobstein, executive vice president for research and innovation at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “In order for a university researcher to work well with a corporate researcher, they need to know each other and know what they’re doing. We probably need to find out a way to enhance those relationships even further.”

These experts say that there are also some things the nation needs to do much better—namely, teach its children math and science. Nearly 80 percent of U.S. high-school graduates fail to meet benchmark levels for one or more entry-level college course in math or science, according to the company that administers the ACT test. And the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 48th in the world for quality of math and science education.

“We need to get kids in primary and secondary schools excited and active in math and science, and then foster that interest and continue it as they get into higher education,” says Jack Plunkett, CEO of Houston-based Plunkett Research, which follows research-and-development trends. “We have not been doing that.”

There are some signs of progress. Some of the money proposed by the Gathering Storm commission was ultimately appropriated, though only as a part of stimulus funds, which have largely run out. Technology companies and professional associations are mentoring students and sponsoring hands-on programs such as science fairs and robotics competitions. “Young children, and even children in high school, tend to latch onto a career idea because someone suggests it to them or they respect an adult who works in a certain discipline,” Plunkett says.

Universities are doing more to commercialize what comes out of their labs—though some critics say this comes at the expense of basic research, and is really motivated by pressure to generate much-needed revenue.

“I would rather phrase it as not necessarily marginalizing basic research, but saying that research comes with different expectations,” says Sethuraman Panchanathan, chief research officer at Arizona State University. “It’s a certain level of accountability that is being built in.”

Panchanathan says researchers need to make clear what they contribute. “This goes back to making the case,” he says. “We have to show that research investments are really advancing humanity and more importantly providing economic and societal gains. The case has to be made.”

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