The federal government has long supported scientific research for the benefit of society, far beyond the initial purposes of national defense. These investments have yielded manifest benefits that today include computers, the Internet, wireless communication, the laser, the global positioning system, and modern medicine, among many others—advances that have enabled the United States to achieve unprecedented prosperity, security, and quality of life.
Now, however, the United States faces increased global competition for new technologies and other innovations. In this context, Congress wants to further the benefits of science for the U.S. economy and the advancement of other national goals—in particular, keeping the nation in the forefront of the global competition for new technologies and other innovations. But it must do so in the face of growing economic exigencies.
In seeking to increase the returns on federal investments in scientific research, Congress asked the National Academies to study measures of the impacts of research on society. Of particular interest were measures that could serve to increase the translation of research into commercial products and services. The committee formed to conduct this study found that measures can usefully quantify research outputs for many specific purposes, but that current measures are inadequate to guide national-level decisions about what research investments will expand the benefits of science. That is because metrics used to assess any one aspect of the system of research in isolation without a strong understanding of the larger picture may prove misleading. With few exceptions, approaches to
measuring the impacts and quality of research programs cannot depict the diffuse and interconnected pathways that lead from research to technologies and other innovations. The American research enterprise is indeed capable of producing increased benefits for U.S. society, as well as for the global community. To reap those benefits, however, will require new measures to guide federal research investments. To develop those measures, it is necessary to understand what drives the American research enterprise and what has made it so productive.
First and foremost, the American research enterprise is a system that must be viewed in relation to the innovation system in which the discoveries it produces are used to develop new technologies and other innovations. Without this system-level understanding, policies focused on relatively narrow objectives—such as increasing university patenting and licensing of research discoveries or reducing the funding for certain disciplines or types of research—could have undesired consequences. With this understanding, however, the committee concludes that societal benefits from federal research can be enhanced by focusing attention on three crucial pillars of the research system: a talented and interconnected workforce, adequate and dependable resources, and world-class basic research in all major areas of science.
• A talented and interconnected workforce—The importance of talent cannot be overstated. Talent benefits not only from traditional education and research training in science and engineering, but also from immigration; partnerships; supportive research environments; and the worldwide networks through which researchers connect with others, develop professional relationships, and share ideas and scientific resources. International collaborations are an increasingly important mechanism allowing the United States to rapidly apply knowledge gained through research investments in other areas of the world.
• Adequate and dependable resources—Stable and predictable federal funding encourages talented students to pursue scientific careers, keeps established researchers engaged over a career, and attracts and retains foreign talent. It also supports a diversity of institutions that both fund and conduct research, as well as essential scientific infrastructure—the tools necessary for conducting research. Stable resources are increasingly important to future competitiveness given the rising investments in research by other countries, particularly China and other Asian nations.
• World-class basic research in all major areas of science—Basic research, in which investigators pursue their ideas primarily for increased understanding and not necessarily toward a technologi-
cal goal, often provides the foundation of discovery and knowledge for future economically significant innovations. World-class basic research in all major areas of science is important for three major reasons:
– Truly transformative scientific discoveries often depend on research in a variety of fields. Maintaining broad expertise among those who conduct research also sustains the innovation system, because technological problems often arise in the development of an innovation that require research for their solutions. Research and innovation are symbiotic in this way. Similarly, many aspects of manufacturing contribute to and draw on research.
– In today’s highly connected world, a discovery made somewhere is soon known everywhere. The competitive advantage may go not to the nation in which the discovery was made but to the nation that can use it more effectively to develop new technologies and other innovations by relying on a broad foundation of knowledge, talent, and capacity derived from diverse basic research.
– A world-class basic research enterprise attracts scholars from around the world who in turn enhance excellence in research and create a self-reinforcing cycle.
We also note that not all research achieves its intended goals. In particular, high-risk research inevitably results in some failures. Yet the transformative innovations that eventually result from some high-risk research can more than justify the investment in other such research that may fail. Moreover, even failures can lead to unanticipated discoveries and steer research in new directions. Only government has the broad social purpose and long horizon to invest in high-risk research so that society can reap its ultimate benefits.
The American research enterprise is a complex, dynamic system in part because it has evolved with many of the characteristics of free enterprise: it is decentralized, pluralistic, competitive, meritocratic, and entrepreneurial—major reasons why it has been so successful. In this complex system, it is impossible to predict what innovations may eventually result from research discoveries or which types of research would, in the absence of other types, lead to transformative innovations. Trying to make such predictions could have untoward effects. Attention to the pillars of talent, resources, and basic research will ensure that discoveries and innovations continue to emerge from the scientific research enterprise. Moreover, measures designed around these three pillars would promote a better understanding of the American research enterprise as a system.
These measures might include, for example, indicators of human and knowledge capital, indicators of the flow of knowledge in specific fields of science, indicators with which to track the flow of foreign research talent, portfolio analyses of federal research investments by field of science, international benchmarking of research performance, and measures of research reproducibility. Such measures could be used to guide federal research investments that would maximize the ability of the system to yield more of the societal benefits that have made it the world’s premier scientific research enterprise.