Keynote Address: Unlocking Our Future
Laura Lyman Rodriguez
Office of Representative Vernon Ehlers
In 1945, Vannevar Bush outlined the national science policy under President Franklin Roosevelt with the publication of “Science—The Endless Frontier.” The policy outlined by Bush was comprehensive. Among other things, it addressed the status of science in the nation and defined areas of national need in science. Subsequent Administrations followed this policy without major modifications.
Although the policy has lasted more than 50 years, there have been sweeping changes in its social context. The Cold War is over, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and we are in the midst of an unprecedented revolution in technology. To address science policy in light of these changes, the Speaker of the House requested a study in mid-1997. The report of this study was released on September 24, 1998, and was approved by the full House of Representatives on October 8, 1998.
Representative Vernon Ehlers, the first research physicist elected to Congress, was chosen to lead the study. During his investigation, Representative Ehlers received input from over 10,000 scientists nationwide. This wide base of expertise enabled him to produce a dramatic new vision for science and technology. Although some of the points made in the report may seem obvious to the practitioners of scientific research, it was written for Congress and serves as a framework for future funding and policy discussions. The report is not meant as an end.
Congressman Ehlers' goal and vision is for the United States to maintain its preeminent status in science and technology—not just to provide opportunity for U.S. scientists but to improve the lives, health, and freedom for people everywhere. He believes it is our responsibility, as the sole remaining superpower, to use our leadership in science and engineering for the betterment of the world. However, for science to continue to benefit society, the scientific enterprise must stay strong and be sustainable. The recommendations in the report are meant to provide a framework in which the continued strength and sustainability can be achieved.
Four main theses were developed in the report:
Our science policy is outdated.
The U.S. public does not understand science or its practice.
Scientists are politically clueless.
Our nation needs:
Better science, mathematics, engineering and technology education;
A new concise, coherent, and comprehensive science policy; and
Socially responsible and politically aware scientists.
The report identified the following four major areas as needing attention:
Continued discoveries at the scientific frontier;
Research advances in the private sector;
Integration of science and decisionmaking through both the regulatory and judicial systems; and
Improvement of science education.
Fundamental research is of primary significance because it will drive many of the innovations that can make the vision of better and healthier lives a reality. This research depends largely on funding from the federal government—funding that must be stable, substantial, and of high priority. The report strongly endorses the need for a major federal role in funding individual investigators for pursuit of fundamental research in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering. The goal of the report is to strengthen the basic research enterprise in the country.
The Federal Level
Interdisciplinary research is becoming increasingly important and must be supported at the federal level. Because interdisciplinary research does not fit neatly into a specific funding category, it can fall through the cracks in our current system of funding. Therefore, mechanisms should be established to support this research as an im-
NOTE: This article was prepared from written material provided to the Solid State Sciences Committee by the speaker.
portant part of the federal basic research portfolio.
The balance of funding between different disciplines must also be addressed. Prosperity, health, and security are the result of breakthroughs in a diversity of disciplines. Moreover, advances in one area of science often depend on advances in completely different research areas.
Exploratory research ideas that are creative and truly represent a leap in thinking must be supported. As research funding becomes more competitive, strictly funding “safe” incremental research at the expense of more risky ideas must be avoided. A fraction of the federal research funds must be set aside for this purpose.
The discretionary budget, the source of all federal science funding, is shrinking. Controlling this reduction or turning it around requires controlling entitlement spending. Entitlement programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, need reformation because they can consume any surplus that is generated. In 1962, entitlements used 25 percent of the budget, whereas now the amount is 50 percent. Without control, this percentage will increase, such that, by 2010, all revenues will be spent on entitlements and interest, leaving nothing for defense and domestic discretionary spending. The current surplus of federal funds adds a twist to the overall budget strategy but does not alter the fact that discretionary restraints must be incorporated.
The Private Sector
Research in industry is important for harvesting the fruits of basic research that benefit society. New findings can rarely, if ever, be brought directly from the laboratory bench to a salable item. The gap between basic research and industry-driven applied research or product development is referred to as the “valley of death.” As academic research becomes more basic, applied research is shifting more and more toward product development, thus broadening the gap between the two worlds. It is in this netherworld where discoveries that may be very beneficial for society are lost or forgotten. The bridges or pathways between the two do not follow a straight trajectory but have a complex, interactive relationship. Consequently, truly innovative research in industry is absolutely necessary and must be encouraged. To attain this goal, the following policies should be pursued:
Young startup companies must be encouraged, because they often pursue research that is far more basic than applied. Capitalization of these companies is critical and tax policies must be enacted that support this.
R&D tax credit should be made permanent. The uncertainty about the existence of a tax credit from year to year inhibits innovative, long-term, multiyear research in the industrial sector.
Regulations that are needlessly burdensome must be streamlined.
Partnerships between government, academic, and industrial laboratories must be promoted.
Development of the nation's intellectual capital in science and mathematics is vitally important to ensure a bright future for the United States. The report recommends changes at all levels of education—from K-12 through graduate school. Teacher training, the retention of qualified teachers, curricula, and research at the K-12 level are addressed in the report. The report also stresses the need for a diversified education. In particular, at the graduate level, students can no longer be trained exclusively for careers as academic researchers because the majority of Ph.D. graduates will pursue careers outside of academia. Communication between the scientific establishment and the lay public must also be improved. Although the freedom of the individual researcher is necessary to bring about ground-breaking discoveries, it is crucial that the scientific and engineering communities strengthen their ties to society and to the taxpayers who ultimately support their research.
The report recognizes and underscores the idea that science helps us make everyday decisions—as a society, as a government, as individuals, and as voters. The ability to draw on science and engineering to facilitate the decision-making process must be strengthened. If a more civic-minded mentality is adopted and if policymakers reach out to communities, the quality of decisions and policies related to scientific research can be improved.
Congressman Ehlers set out to write a document that was concise, coherent, and comprehensive. Because of these constraints, in-depth treatments of specific aspects of the scientific enterprise were not possible. Rather, the report is a “broad brush” view of the entire science and engineering landscape. It is intended to be the beginning of a process and not the end of one. For example, the report is the first step in a long-term process in which Congress will focus on the national science policy with reviews at least every 5 years. The work to address specific science policy issues must emerge
from the continuing review. Representative Ehlers intends to begin the congressional dialog on science policy during the 106th Congress.
In the words of the Ehlers report:
We must ensure that the well of scientific discovery does not run dry, by facilitating and encouraging advances in fundamental research.
We must see that this well of discovery is not allowed to stagnate.
We must strengthen both the educational system we depend upon to produce the diverse array of people . . . who draw from and replenish the well of discovery, as well as the lines of communication between scientists and engineers and the American people.