Research Balance for Long-term National Well-being

Findings and Conclusions: Polymeric materials production, a large, diverse industry in which the United States has been a leader for several decades, accounted for revenues of over $100B, employment of over 170,000, and a positive trade balance of about $6B in 1992. Polymers have broadly penetrated the materials markets at the commodity, engineering, and high-technology specialty levels. Examples include automobile and airframe components, fibers and fabrics, rubber products of all kinds, and packaging and structural plastics.

Observed trends, however, have raised concerns that the era of leadership and positive contribution to the U.S. economy is in danger of coming to an end. Industrial research funding generally reported indicates a 7 percent increase in 1992 over 1991 (Business Week, 1993), but other surveys and economic indicators are in conflict with such an optimistic analysis. Particularly worrisome are recent organizational changes in industry and the shortening of research horizons to focus on improving existing products and on bringing products to market more rapidly at the expense of research directed to achieving basic understanding and breakthroughs in new materials.

Recommendation 1: To ensure a basis for future success in the U.S. polymer industry and concomitant long-term social and economic benefits for the nation, the committee recommends a broad reassessment of the current balance between research and development in polymer science and engineering. Consideration should be given to the following:

  • Maintenance of corporate research groups that have a viable nucleus of highly qualified specialists, to enable corporations to take advantage of continuing advances and breakthroughs;

  • Development of government policies and legislation that encourage achievement of long-term, rather than just short-term, goals by industry and that stimulate industry and economic well-being;

  • Funding by government of programs that encourage industry collaboration with academia and with national laboratories; and

  • Increased funding for polymer research that reflects the significance of polymers as a key element in the current materials initiatives.

Increased Interaction Between Polymer Researchers and Practitioners: Need for Interdisciplinary Approaches and Team Efforts

Findings and Conclusions: As the field of polymer science and engineering and the problems it addresses have grown larger and more complex, the need has increased for an integrated approach to achieving improvements in such key areas as manufacturing, transportation, energy, housing, medicine, information and communications, and defense.

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