Congressman Sherwood Boehlert
It’s a pleasure to be here this morning to open this timely conference on partnerships in biotechnology and computing.
It would be hard to think of two fields more deserving of the National Academy’s attention—or, for that matter, of Congress’s attention. The health and information technologies sectors—however defined—are two of the most dynamic in our economy. Some economists estimate that information technology alone has been responsible for fully one-third of our economic expansion since 1992.
But noting the economic significance of these two fields only begins to hint at their impact. Advances in biotechnology and computing have fundamentally changed, and continue to alter the very structure of our lives. To take just one obvious example, our workplaces look, sound, and feel different than they did just a few years ago—and perhaps are in different locations and require different skills—because of the advent of the personal computer.
(As an aside, I should admit that this is not so true of my own personal workplace, in which the color television is the most conspicuous technological advance, but it is true for the rest of my office. And my wife loves the Internet.)
More profoundly, biotechnology and computing are changing the ways we understand the world—altering our sense of what it means for something to be a text, or a piece of information, or an organism.
Like the automobile or the atomic bomb—to take two very different but equally powerful examples—biotechnology and computing will change—are
changing—everything. They are literally altering our physical and mental landscapes.
But I’m not here today to discuss the social implications of biotech and computing—although they must be kept in mind—but rather to focus on the federal government’s role in advancing these two fields.
As everyone here knows, the federal government has had an enormous role in spawning and supporting these two fields. And the good news is that this support can be expected to continue.
The trickiest questions do not concern whether the federal government should support research in these areas. Rather, the open issues are how much money the federal government should devote to research, how the government should balance its research portfolio, and how the government should structure its research arrangements. Let me give you a sort of “status report” on where the policy debate stands on each of those questions, and then, hopefully, you’ll spend the next day-and-a-half moving that debate forward.
On the state of the overall research budget, I can bring you good news and bad news. The good news is that research programs, at least non-defense research programs, have fared pretty well over the past decade. Despite the vagaries of the budget process and the shifting power structure of Washington, non-defense R&D spending (which is mostly R) accounted for a slightly higher share of the federal budget in fiscal 1998 than it did in fiscal 1990—and of course, in 1998, that was a share of a larger budget.
A major reason for that relatively strong showing is that support for research spending in Congress is broad, if not necessarily deep. There is no faction in Congress out to make its reputation by eviscerating research programs, which are widely viewed as “the goose that laid the golden egg” —or to use another popular metaphor, as our “seed corn,” which I guess is what is fed to the goose.
That generous assumption about research is holding true this year even as Congress and the Administration have hunkered down for a protracted war of words over the budget. Last week, the President signed the VA-HUD-Independent Agencies appropriations bill, for example, which included a 7 percent increase for the research programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF). That increase, by the way, included major new funding initiatives in biotechnology and computing.
So then what’s the bad news? I think it is twofold. One is that a few programs have been notably excluded from the pattern of growth, particularly basic research programs at the Department of Defense, which have been so important historically in bolstering mathematics, engineering, and computing research.
The second piece of bad news is only relatively bad news, which is that I think it’s unrealistic to expect a significant acceleration in the growth of research dollars. When the research community starts banking on a doubling of science
spending, I think it may be guilty of what Alan Greenspan infamously referred to as “irrational exuberance.”
Yes, surpluses are predicted, but spending caps remain in place for the next couple of years, tax cuts of some size remain on the agenda, and there are plenty of competing programs for whatever money is set aside for new spending. Now I know that the science and engineering community tends to feel—with some reason—that every field and sub-discipline is underfunded—that all the children are below average, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor—but money is not likely to become available to “fully fund” every field—even if we could agree on what that would mean.
So that means that we—the research community, the Administration, the Congress—are going to have to continue to make tough choices, to set priorities, to figure out how to balance the federal research portfolio.
I know that one reason the Academy has arranged this conference is because of a growing sense among some that biomedical research is consuming too much of the federal research budget. And indeed health research’s share of the federal non-defense R&D budget has grown from less than one-quarter in 1960 to close to one-half this year.
I think it’s extremely timely for the Academy to look at this question because I must say the disproportionate growth of health research spending is not exactly causing consternation on Capitol Hill. As we prepare to debate the Labor, Human Services, and, Education appropriation for fiscal 2000, there is a bidding war underway to see who can take credit for adding the most money to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And the last time Congress asked the Academy to do a report on setting research priorities, it was because the bipartisan team of Senators Hatfield and Harkin thought that biomedical research was underfunded.
It’s not hard to explain how we arrived at this state of affairs. First, almost no one in Congress looks at the overall research budget—that’s just not how we’re set up. Second, everyone in Congress has a body—you may have your own view about whether each of us has a mind, but unarguably each Member of Congress has a body. So the goals of health research are innately understandable and appealing. Third, the political appeal of competing goals—such as fighting the Cold War—has evaporated; only the war against the common cold has been left standing. And finally, and this is of great relevance to your work today, the scientific community—whether academic or industrial—hasn’t clearly told us to do anything different.
I don’t want to suggest that we’re simply awaiting your instructions—we only wait for opinion polls of the uninformed these days. But it is significant that despite the grousing one hears about, no one has clearly made an issue of the balance of the research portfolio. The fairly common understanding in the research community that further advances in biotech may depend on movement in other fields, especially information technology, would come as news to most
Members of Congress. Nor are most Members aware of the multidisciplinary research funded by some of our biomedical programs.
I should point out, though, that there probably is not an era of “ideal balance” on which to look back. Did we strike the right balance in the mid-1960s, when the lion’s share of non-defense R&D money went to space research? I don’t know. The category of “space” covered a multitude of sins, including a lot of computing research. But the point is one sector was leading the pack by far in that “golden age” of federal funding. And, of course, the balance between defense and non-defense research has been the subject of continuing debate.
Let me also note that computing research has also been a winner in the federal sweepstakes relative to many other areas. In the NSF’s proposed budget for fiscal 2000, for example, the computer sciences directorate was slated to get a 41.5 percent increase—far outstripping the runner-up, biological sciences, literally by an order of magnitude.
And one last note on spending: biotech and computing funding raise different policy issues in the minds of many Members of Congress. Biotech—whether in the pharmaceutical or agricultural fields—exists in a web of public regulation—a sign of a public, civic interest in those areas that for better and worse, does not extend to computing. It’s no accident that we have difficult ethical debates in Congress about aspects of biotechnology research but not about computing—even though its effect on our daily lives may be equally profound.
Furthermore, biotech research is much more likely to be seen as truly “basic” —whatever that means nowadays—and therefore more clearly deserving of government support. It’s more difficult to understand what is “basic” about computing research and why it shouldn’t be left to corporations or procurement programs.
The blurring line between basic and applied research, and between R&D, in computing and biotech is one reason for the growing number of partnerships between government, industry, and academia in these areas—another timely focus of your conference. Partnerships have become a “buzz word” on Capitol Hill, as they have in the “outside world.” More and more agency programs encourage partnerships, both at federal labs and universities.
But frankly I don’t think we’ve spent enough time considering the policy implications of this newfound interest in collaboration. There is no incentive on either the corporate or academic side of the relationship to assess fully the impact this may be having on our research endeavors, particularly at universities.
Universities have never even admitted how fundamentally the postwar advent of massive federal research funding has changed the institution, often contending that they display the same collegiality and attention to students that they did when they arose in medieval Italy. Life inside the Beltway notwithstanding, a firm attachment to convenient illusions is a poor substitute for analysis.
I think that now is a great time to examine the idea of partnerships—when the idea has been developed and implemented enough to provide some real data,
but not so far along as to be frozen in one particular form or to have become irreversible. So here are some questions I have about partnerships, in addition to the obvious one about whether they produce the intended results. Let me emphasize that they are questions; I am genuinely unsure of the answers.
First, are partnerships more likely to be a means for companies to take advantage of basic research or are they more likely to skew government and academic research toward more near-term questions? Businesses are coming to universities, in part, because they recognize the importance of fundamental research but are less likely than ever to fund it. It would be ironic if the end result was to pull universities away from that very research.
Second, in what ways are intellectual property rights concerns altering the nature of the business-university relationship and relationships within universities? In the new world of partnerships have laws like Bayh-Dole become counterproductive by making universities competitors in the intellectual property arena, or more important than ever, by granting property rights to a public or quasi-public entity?
Third, and perhaps most important, how have partnerships altered the relationship between professor and student? Have partnerships tended to broaden a student’s experience by exposing him or her to corporate issues, or have they interfered by limiting communications with faculty or publishing rights?
I realize it can be easy to romanticize this last question. A young professor told someone I know that he is always careful in setting up partnerships not to allow his students to become “slave labor for the company.” I wondered if that was because in the postwar era, graduate students were supposed to be slave labor for the university. Still, the impact on education is the critical question, especially since companies often claim that what they want most out of partnerships is better prepared students. Are partnerships set up to actually improve graduate and undergraduate education?
I think I’ll leave you with those questions. Too often Members of Congress offer up ill-informed answers that leave audiences with only one question: “Did the Founding Fathers make a mistake?”
This conference will offer up the views of some of the leading lights in industry, academia, and government, who will be able to explore these issues in ways that I can only begin to imagine. And I am eager to read the report of what results.
Kurt Vonnegut once defined the “information revolution” as the “idea that human beings could actually know what they’re talking about if they really want to.” That’s an “information revolution” this conference should advance regardless of its conclusions about any particular technologies. Thank you.
QUESTIONS FROM THE AUDIENCE
Dr. Stephen Dahms of San Diego State University recalled a meeting recently in San Diego hosted by the Chairman of Qualcomm on behalf of the Chairman of the House Committee on Science, James Sensenbrenner. Rep. Sensenbrenner discussed new legislation designed to increase funding for information technology R&D, particularly research funded at the National Science Foundation. At the meeting, Rep. Sensenbrenner was asked about funding for biotechnology research. In response, according to Dr. Dahms, Rep. Sensenbrenner noted the importance of biotechnology, but the congressman viewed it as medical research, not as part of science R&D as traditionally understood. Dr. Dahms asked Congressman Boehlert what the scientific community needed to do to break down such interdisciplinary barriers.
In response, Rep. Boehlert recalled advice he had given to the president of Cornell University, which is in his district. The university’s leadership and scientists would make the case for funding various projects, and Rep. Boehlert would point out that they had his support, but they had to talk with other Members of Congress. This example, Rep. Boehlert said, pointed to the fact that the scientific community “is not particularly adept at lobbying for its own interests.” Scientists spend far too much time talking with Members who are already sympathetic to their interests, but not nearly enough time educating new Members or Members whose committee assignments do not relate to science. Scientists, Rep. Boehlert continued, must explain to rank-and-file Members of Congress just how important their work is to the nation.