Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences

Report of a Conference

Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications

National Research Council

NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS
Washington, D.C. 1994



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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences Report of a Conference Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications National Research Council NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS Washington, D.C. 1994

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference NOTICE: The project that is the subject of this report was approved by the Governing Board of the National Research Council, whose members are drawn from the councils of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. This report has been reviewed by a group other than the authors according to procedures approved by a Report Review Committee consisting of members of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine. The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit, self-perpetuating society of distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research, dedicated to the furtherance of science and technology and to their use for the general welfare. Upon the authority of the charter granted to it by the Congress in 1863, the Academy has a mandate that requires it to advise the federal government on scientific and technical matters. Dr. Bruce Alberts is president of the National Academy of Sciences. The National Academy of Engineering was established in 1964, under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, as a parallel organization of outstanding engineers. It is autonomous in its administration and in the selection of its members, sharing with the National Academy of Sciences the responsibility for advising the federal government. The National Academy of Engineering also sponsors engineering programs aimed at meeting national needs, encourages education and research, and recognizes the superior achievements of engineers. Dr. Robert M. White is president of the National Academy of Engineering. The Institute of Medicine was established in 1970 by the National Academy of Sciences to secure the services of eminent members of appropriate professions in the examination of policy matters pertaining to the health of the public. The Institute acts under the responsibility given to the National Academy of Sciences by its congressional charter to be an adviser to the federal government and, upon its own initiative, to identify issues of medical care, research, and education. Dr. Kenneth I. Shine is president of the Institute of Medicine. The National Research Council was organized by the National Academy of Sciences in 1916 to associate the broad community of science and technology with the Academy's purposes of furthering knowledge and advising the federal government. Functioning in accordance with general policies determined by the Academy, the Council has become the principal operating agency of both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering in providing services to the government, the public, and the scientific and engineering communities. The Council is administered jointly by both Academies and the Institute of Medicine. Dr. Bruce Alberts and Dr. Robert M. White are chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the National Research Council. Support for this project was provided by the Basic Science Fund of the National Academy of Sciences, whose contributors include the AT&T Foundation, Atlantic Richfield Foundation, BP America, Dow Chemical Company, E.I. DuPont de Nemours and Company, IBM Corporation, Merck and Company, Inc., Monsanto Company, and Shell Oil Companies Foundation. Copyright 1994 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference Preface This volume summarizes a conference held August 13-15, 1993, at Chantilly, Virginia. Entitled “Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences,” the conference was sponsored by the National Research Council's (NRC's) Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications. The impetus for organizing the “dialogue” was a growing recognition among senior researchers, administrators, and science policy analysts that science—especially the physical and mathematical sciences—is being affected by major changes in its external environment, nationally and internationally.1 Issues involving the composition of and justification for federal support of research are becoming increasingly visible and contentious. The Cold War rationale for support of research, predominantly in the physical and mathematical sciences, is gone. Universities are facing changing patterns of federal support and questions about the ethics of administration of public funds and the conduct of research. The national laboratories are continuing their efforts to redefine their missions and their relationship to the private sector in the post-Cold War era. Industrial leaders and federal program officials are reexamining assumptions about the role of basic research in commercial success. Issues concerning international economic competitiveness and the disappearance of domestic manufacturing capabilities are affecting the overall environment for the support of research in industrial settings. The federal government, while trying to control the deficit, is taking a more active role in coordinating the nation 's technology effort. Legislators and program managers are finding it increasingly difficult to formulate a coherent message on scientific priorities. Fairly or not, a host of problems exist, and the public looks to science for help in mitigating them. These include the poor state of precollege education; urban physical and social ills; the need to achieve sustainable economic development and to employ the work force fully while U.S. industry restructures; major environmental problems such as global climate change and the effects of toxic materials; and more. The impact of these changes and new demands on the physical and mathematical sciences will be far-reaching. Meanwhile, uncertainty and confusion abound in all sectors, 1   The specific suggestion that these issues might be the subject of a productive conference originated in the Board on Physics and Astronomy, whose insight we gratefully acknowledge as a major stimulus for the organization of this dialogue.

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference partly reflected in many unanswered questions: Do the physical and mathematical sciences need to change the way they operate? Is the “linear model” of technology transfer (in which discoveries in universities and some industrial research laboratories are handed off to R&D teams in industry who take them into manufacturing) a “false myth” for many products? If so, what does this imply for how society organizes its research institutions? How can the quality of science be preserved in adapting to new circumstances? How can the scientific community formulate and articulate priorities more effectively? How can we reconcile the apparent conflict between scientists following their own best judgments as to where the best opportunities for scientific breakthroughs are to be found and the need for funders of the scientific enterprise to demonstrate accountability and to direct the work of scientists to those areas most likely to yield benefits to society? These questions are not new, but they are now more urgent. Many of the driving forces behind these changes are largely external to the science communities conducting research in various institutional settings. Consequently, an effective dialogue about the significance and implications of these changes is not so much about science per se as about virtually everything else. Effective dialogue in these circumstances must involve representatives outside of the research environment as well as the practitioners of science. This attempt to initiate a process for understanding and ultimately responding to the sweeping political and economic changes now under way was therefore arranged to provide a diversity of viewpoints broadly representative of the general society in which U.S. science is done. Throughout the Cold War, the nation was in a kind of metastable state with a known enemy and a strong rationale for doing research to stay ahead of that enemy. That state was nowhere near equilibrium; it was just a pause in the flow of history. With the end of the Cold War we now seem to face constant, somewhat chaotic, and confusing change, which is presumably normal. If this argument is accepted, the transition out of the Cold War marks the resumption of historical change. The pause was long enough for many social institutions to solidify, but they must now change and probably will continue to do so. There is talk of the need for a new “social contract” between science and society, a contract that would not define a new period of metastability but rather would confirm continuing change. Any such new arrangement probably will require the research community to stay in much better touch with the social environment as a way to understand the nature of the changes and to respond to them in ways that benefit both science and the public it serves. Beginning the Dialogue To begin an effective response to these concerns, the Commission, with the advice of administration officials, congressional staff, and industry representatives, organized this dialogue according to the following criteria: The dialogue should focus on the physical and mathematical sciences, since (1) the rationale for public support of these sciences is no longer as clear as the argument for publicly funding the biomedical or the engineering sciences, and (2) attempting to cover all of science in this initial effort would result in an unmanageably broad scope.

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference The theme of the dialogue should be how the physical and mathematical sciences can respond to changing national needs. The dialogue would not fulfill its purpose if the theme were to become how the scientific community can preserve itself, or some variant. This first event should have at most 40 participants—a number large enough to provide a variety of viewpoints and small enough to allow a high degree of interaction and discussion. The objective of the conference should not be to solve any of the problems that motivated it, but rather to begin a process that encourages wider participation as it grows and evolves through successive events. If the dialogue is only a one-time event, it will have failed in meeting this objective. The organizers recognized from the start a need to balance the participation in the conference, to assure that the external forces affecting how science is done and supported were broadly represented. To ensure a broad scope of discussion, five background papers were commissioned, and the two that “set the scene” (i.e., those that described (1) the changing world and (2) future societal expectations of science) were assigned to scholars outside science. Also, Harold Shapiro, president of Princeton University, agreed to summarize what he heard at this conference, and at our urging has written up his summary. His remarks precede the five commissioned papers. Follow Up Since our main purpose was beginning a dialogue, this report is offered to stimulate further discussion about the motivations for the conference, about the papers and the dialogue process, and, most importantly, about where we go from here. Recent indicators—for example, the language in the Senate appropriations report on the future of the NSF2—show 2   A recent report of the Senate Committee on Appropriations states, in part: It is time for the Foundation to move beyond rhetorical statements about the value of strategic research or the importance of using science for the transfer of knowledge and technology. That, in the Committee's view, is a fact of life and political reality. Instead, it is now time for the Foundation to move to identify that which is specific, immediate, and realizable in pursuit of this broader mission. The agency must spell out how much of its mission should clearly be strategic and applied in nature, and then implement these parameters through its budget process. . . . If the NSF and its constituent members choose not to do this, future Federal R&D budgets should instead be allocated more generously to agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA, the national energy labs, or the National Institutes of Health, all of whom seem poised to pursue critical technologies with entrepreneurial vigor and enthusiasm. The full text of the committee's guidance appears in Senate Report 103-137, Departments of Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development, and Independent Agencies Appropriations Bill, 1994, pp. 166-169.

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Beginning a Dialogue on the Changing Environment for the Physical and Mathematical Sciences: Report of a Conference that we must maintain awareness of external changes and keep the dialogue ongoing if we are to best serve the scientific needs of society. We regard this conference as merely a start in the process of discussing and developing the rationale for federal, state, and industrial support of research in the physical and mathematical sciences. The NRC is developing a deliberate strategy for publicizing the issues addressed at the conference and exploring means for achieving desired changes in the research system. Many participants at the conference expressed an interest in continuing the dialogue in their own institutions, and a number of proposals were made for establishing longer-term mechanisms at the state and local levels (e.g., regional science and technology councils) that would be useful in involving a large community of interests in applying the results of research programs to broad social objectives. One particularly attractive option may be for the NRC to sponsor a series of regional dialogue meetings modeled on the Chantilly conference that would bring together participants from local communities, hosted perhaps by a local university in conjunction with a major federal laboratory or other research institution. Like the Chantilly conference, the regional dialogue meetings would seek to encompass a wide range of viewpoints and continue the practice of reaching beyond the science community to involve representatives of state and local political institutions as well as academics from nonscience disciplines and other participants, who can give voice to the concerns and interests of the broader public. Selected participants from the original conference could help to organize these meetings and carry the spirit of the dialogue to a broader community. Such an approach would extend the dialogue and make it more pertinent to local needs and take better advantage of local resources. We hope that this small volume of papers from the Chantilly conference provides a useful summary of the issues, concerns, and perspectives presented by its participants. Unfortunately, this report cannot communicate the full range of the viewpoints expressed in the formal sessions, working groups, and hallway conversations and around the dining tables. Nor can it convey the heightened sense of involvement and participation among this diverse group of concerned and interested individuals, whose common purpose was to seek understanding and to open a broader dialogue about the sweeping changes that now surround us. The very excellence of that experience makes it impossible to capture in print. Despite these deficiencies in the report, the meeting did fruitfully begin a dialogue. We believe that we have achieved our initial goals and have launched a very healthy process. Richard N. Zare, Co-chair Professor, Department of Chemistry Stanford University Chair, Commission on Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Applications, National Research Council Radford Byerly, Jr., Co-chair Vice President, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research Former Chief of Staff, Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives