One of the committees of the IRI is looking into the whole issue of metrics, primarily from the point of view of trying to understand how to evaluate the performance of R&D. Of course, it is looking not only at research, but also at the entire R&D process, for a number of different reasons. A lot of our corporate research budgets are under attack, and the directors of research need to be able to contribute good information about why these activities should be funded. Another reason is one of understanding more clearly what is going on in order to improve the quality of the processes that we are using and to improve our contribution.

The IRI experience is highly relevant to the issues discussed at this workshop because this organization has faced many of the same problems. NSF can learn a lot from the companies that have been successful in making a transition. Those companies have paid attention to understanding who their customers are, how they create value for those customers, and how to measure that value. They have become very good at improving the value they generate and at being able to demonstrate that they are doing so. That is highly persuasive in terms of obtaining funds. This process should be recognized as a real-world trend that is not going to go away.

Nevertheless, it is important not to make too strong an analogy between industry and NSF funding. One of the statements repeatedly made by industry is that long-range research is being cut back, and industries are looking more to the universities and to the government to support that kind of work. NSF should be funding exactly the kinds of research that industry is jettisoning now because of the very metrics that industry is using. To apply the same kind of metrics without a lot of correction would result in NSF's mimicking the decisions that have been made in industry when, in fact, the opposite decisions need to be made by government if it is to maintain an appropriate equilibrium. We need to be especially careful about how we calibrate what is happening in government against what is happening in industry.

One final point. We have been talking about industry success, but some of that success was at a cost that basic researchers want to avoid. The large corporate labs are much smaller than they were a decade ago. The cuts being discussed with regard to NSF funding are not nearly as extreme by comparison.


The forces for change are strong and they are having an impact. The industrial speakers discussed how they have responded, but those forces are affecting NSF and research universities differently than industry. There is a great tendency, a great pressure, especially with the end of the Cold War, for NSF to spread its support of research uniformly. This is not a new pressure. In 1947, when the Senate was contemplating a law to establish NSF, there was a debate between Senators Fulbright and Russell from Arkansas and Georgia, and Senator Saltonstall of Massachusetts. Senators Fulbright and Russell said, “You have got to put something in the legislation to make sure that this research support gets distributed properly around the country; otherwise Harvard and MIT will have it all within six months.” Senator Saltonstall said, “Well, you want the best national security system, you want to buy the best research, and you are not interested in that other part.” Senator Saltonstall won the argument, but Senators Russell and Fulbright were right and those forces have not gone away. Much more recently, there was a debate in the Senate about earmarking. Senator Inouye of Hawaii was a strong proponent of that. He argued that peer review was inherently unfair because it favored the haves over the have-nots and that everybody should have an equal break.

So the question is, Will these forces become more important now that the military security rationale is gone? The answer probably is yes. Here is one way in which those forces for change are going to act on research universities. The reason this country has the world' s best research universities is not because we are smarter than everybody else, but because we have a different system to execute that research. There is a direct link between the quality of research and infrastructure support, but many of the components of the research process are currently being questioned.

So what should NSF do? It may have to become more elitist than it is now. From a political standpoint, it cannot be simply elitist; it needs to take some resources and make it clear that those are to support whatever is truly excellent wherever it may be found. At the same time, there are other needs in the country that must be recognized.

One concern is that the separation between research and education is unnatural and damaging to NSF. Getting them back together and articulating this in a way that the people who are not researchers understand should be considered in this introspective process. It may be that everyone wants to separate them because no one trusts researchers to actually care about education. We all know, however, that research and graduate education are

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement