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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology 5 Conclusions The committee was not asked to recommend policies to NIST but to report its observations and, where reasonable, findings and conclusions on trends in the institutional, social, economic, and political environment in which the science and technology enterprise exists. The text of its report consists of a series of observations, findings, and conclusions about particular fields of research and areas of technology. Still, analyzing possible futures for science and technology by looking at push, contextual, and pull factors, while analytically powerful for the purposes of this report, tends to underplay the overarching themes, which are discussed in this final chapter. • Although it is not possible to forecast what specific advances will be made or when, progress in science and technology will continue to be extraordinarily robust, offering substantial benefits to society and expanding opportunities for further progress. The report includes many examples of promising research advances and technological developments. Many of the most significant advances stem from the intensifying and synergistic convergence among nominally disparate fields. As one example, materials science and information technology have played a key role in the development of DNA microarray “chips,” which have made rapid genetic screening possible. As another example, we seem to be at the beginning of an increasingly sophisticated understanding of self-assembly of large biomolecules that might lead to new applications in computational systems. • The amount and direction of research and technology development are
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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology shaped by the environment or the context in important ways, including governmental investment, tax, and regulatory policies; institutional arrangements; and social values. Public and private decisions on funding R&D, including projects, facilities and equipment, and education and training, influence what will be pursued and how fast. Indeed, there are indications that public views on the appropriateness of certain research directions will be reflected not merely in funding decisions, but also in direct regulation. Current law, for example, proscribes the development of software to circumvent certain commercial encryption systems, and it seems possible that certain kinds of human cloning may soon be proscribed. • The institutions that encourage, support, and regulate both research and technological innovation will be increasingly challenged by changes in industrial structure, management, and financing of R&D; by the increasingly global nature of technological innovation as well as the economy; and by social pressures that will affect the legislative agenda. On the one hand, the challenge will be to design antitrust, tax, intellectual property, and capital formation policies to reflect how technical innovation actually happens. On the other hand, the agencies and institutions, both public and private, that fund and provide various kinds of infrastructure to support innovation—from educational institutions to standards developers to funding agencies to those responsible for information and data banks— will have to adjust their programs if they are to be effective in the changed setting. Providing a nourishing climate for S&T, especially work that crosses traditional disciplinary boundaries, will be a challenge for all participants in the enterprise. Universities will need to craft means for strong multidisciplinary research without impairing the quality of the research enterprise. They will also need to protect their ability to conduct long-term research that may be of high risk even as pressure for goal-oriented research grows. Given that central corporate research is likely to continue to decline and that intense competitive pressures will continue to build for technology-based industries, the government must foster longterm and fundamental research across the broad frontiers of science and technology. Industry for its part must continue to recognize the critical value of academic research in enriching the base of fundamental knowledge on which it depends and the role of the government in supplying long-term support, or “patient capital.” It will also be important for graduate education to be designed so that it equips new researchers to embark on satisfying careers and gives them the ability to respond quickly to new research opportunities, especially in interdisciplinary settings.1 1 These points have been made in many previous articles and reports. Pressures on and changes in universities have been the subject of several collections of articles, including Ronald G. Ehrenberg, ed., The American University: National Treasure or Endangered Species. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Uni
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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology Social beliefs and values will affect S&T, both fostering and hindering its adoption and range of uses. The onset of the environmental movement some 30 years ago affected both the directions and uses of new knowledge—for example, its incorporation into green industrial processes and products. That history may be echoed in how the new powers enabled by biological and medical advances are applied. Clinical therapies reliant on molecular and cellular manipulation will continue to be examined extremely closely and held to a very high standard of efficacy. The application of genetically modified organisms in agriculture may encounter much resistance. From a different perspective, public pressure may rise for technologies that give people more control over their own medical information and care. • Pull factors driven by national needs and consumer demands also play a large role in shaping science and technology. The United States and the rest of world face a number of problems that S&T could help resolve or mitigate. These problems create needs such as better technologies for aging and increasingly urban populations, economic development that is sustainable and internationally competitive, new sources of energy and improved energy efficiency, environmental protection and restoration, ways of coping with global climate change, education for a knowledge-based economy and a technically literate polity, and prevention and treatment of infectious and chronic diseases. The events of September 11 and the subsequent mailings of anthrax spores to public figures have sharply heightened the demand for better ways to prevent and recover from acts of terrorism, which will no doubt substantially affect the direction of research and technology development in a broad range of fields. Individual consumer preferences and needs will also affect the demand for research and technology development. To take an obvious but important example, Moore’s law—the doubling of computer processor power every 18 months—may be technically achievable, but it will not be achieved if consumers decide they do not need the increased capacity to accomplish what they want with computers and the Internet. versity Press, 1997; Roger G. Noll, ed., Challenges to Research Universities. Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1998; and William G. Bowen and Harold T. Shapiro, eds., Universities and Their Leadership. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998. For changes under way in industrial research, see Charles F. Larson, “Industrial R&D in 2008,” Research•Technology•Management, NovemberDecember 1998. The need to broaden the education and training of researchers is the subject of National Research Council, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Reshaping theGraduate Education of Scientists and Engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1995.
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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology • Although it is possible to discuss trends in science and technology and the factors that affect them, uncertainty about the future remains very high. In addition to the uncertainty surrounding the nature and timing of research advances and technological innovations, a complex set of contextual and demand factors, whose outcome we cannot predict, also affects trends. The uncertainty about the future directions of S&T is not a failure of effort to understand but is inherent in the process of innovation. But even if it is impossible to make reliable forecasts of technological futures, especially in the dynamic fields of most interest, it certainly is possible to frame plans that are adaptive in their design and thus robust against a range of alternatives. For example, policies should ensure that there is support for long-range research that the private sector cannot justify funding. Supporting basic research in the broad categories described in this report would offer a promising approach without requiring specific predictions of what breakthroughs will actually occur. There should also be adequate support of the infrastructure for innovation, including facilities and equipment, standards, and undergraduate and graduate education. Furthermore, since breakthroughs are likely to involve more than one basic field, efforts to promote and facilitate multidisciplinary research and effective interchange between disciplines of information about research advances can be quite valuable.2 Over and above these efforts, the recognition that citizens of democratic societies will more and more both affect and participate in decisions related to technological development suggests the strong need to promote technical literacy and to improve communication between the S&T community and the public at large. Industry, researchers, and public institutions would have to be involved in this work, which should be viewed as an integral part of the nation’s research and development effort.3 2 The need for sustained federal support of basic research and an adequate research infrastructure, and of interdisciplinary activities, is analyzed in a number of recent reports. The necessity of a federal role in supporting long-term, high-risk R&D is pointed out in National Science Board, Federal Research Resources: A Process For Setting Priorities. NSB 01-156. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, 2001. For a statement of the need to ensure that the federal research portfolio matches national priorities and, in the face of uncertainty, also invests broadly in all areas of research, see National Research Council, Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy, Trends in FederalSupport of Research and Graduate Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001, and National Research Council, Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Observationson the President’s Fiscal Year 2002 Federal Science and Technology Budget. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001. Another report analyzes the benefits of multidisciplinary research in the biology and information fields and recommends policies to foster more of it. See National Research Council, Board on Science, Technology, and Economic Policy, Capitalizing on New Needsand New Opportunities: Government-Industry Partnerships in Biotechnology and Information Technologies. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001. 3 National Science Board, Communicating Science and Technology in the Public Interest. NSF 00-99. Arlington, Va.: National Science Foundation, 2000.
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Future R&D Environments: A Report for the National Institute of Standards and Technology Finally, if research and applications are to become more linked, the institutional sectors of the innovation system—industry, academia, nonprofit research institutes, and government—would have to develop and expand mechanisms for interaction and for coordinating their activities more closely. The challenge will be to accomplish this without losing sight of or compromising their respective strengths and unique roles. True synergy requires proper linkages between these various institutions rather than a blurring of their distinct purposes, and U.S. society is most likely to benefit from technological advances when each of the institutions involved in the innovation system functions effectively and in balance with the others.
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