Coping With Change | May 26, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 21 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 21 | pp. 34-36
Issue Date: May 26, 2008

Coping With Change

Forum tells researchers to expect less money and an emphasis on problem solving in the future
Department: Government & Policy | Collection: Climate Change
Funding Research
AAAS forum in Washington, D.C., explores the nexus between science and politics.
Credit: Shutterstock
Funding Research
AAAS forum in Washington, D.C., explores the nexus between science and politics.
Credit: Shutterstock
Credit: AAAS (both)
Credit: AAAS (both)

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY, S&T to those in policy circles, is in for tough sledding over the coming years. Stagnant federal research budgets, increasing competition from overseas, and changes in the public's expectations of S&T are all going to have troubling impacts for some time for researchers and innovators in the U.S., according to policy experts.

This rather dark vision was presented at the most recent Forum on Science & Technology Policy, organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Speakers at several of the forum's sessions examined the concerns people have today in science and where these concerns might lead the U.S. in the near future.

The annual AAAS forum, held earlier this month in Washington, D.C., drew more than 500 policy wonks seeking the latest word on what direction Congress and the White House may be moving in with regard to science as well as expert analyses on current trends in technology and innovation.

Central to most of the discussion was the prime importance of basic research as the driver for future innovation and economic growth in the U.S. Unfortunately, financial support for basic research, especially from the federal government, is falling and there seems to be little hope that it will rise anytime soon, noted several forum speakers.

"The future is very likely to be like the past, no matter who the president is or who controls the Congress," said John H. Marburger, head of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy for the past seven years. Marburger pointed out that no matter what the country's economic situation is, the percentage of the federal budget that goes to research and development always stays about the same. "I think this situation will continue to persist in future Administrations. You may not like it, but that's the way it is," he said.

He said the continuing resolution passed by Congress at the beginning of this year that cut most fiscal 2008 R&D funding back to 2007 levels did "serious damage to the U.S. long-term prospects for competing successfully in a globalized, technology-intensive economy." Since then, the Administration has requested some hefty increases for some science agencies, including the National Science Foundation, in its budget for next year, fiscal 2009. "The best thing that could happen for U.S. science would be for Congress actually to pass the damn budget," Marburger said.

At the forum, Kei Koizumi, director of the AAAS R&D budget and policy program, followed Marburger with data on the federal science budget, emphasizing that the basic research budget has fallen in real spending power over the past several years. "One result of this is that the National Institutes of Health, which was accepting about one of every three grant proposals a few years ago, is now accepting only one out of five," he said.

This effective funding decrease has a profound impact on the future of science, according to John C. Crowley, a consultant working with the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. "We are losing a disturbing number of early-career scientists who are invited to take tenure-track positions at universities and then discover that it is impossible to get the grants they need to sustain their laboratories. Students see this situation and make career choices in other directions than science," Crowley told the forum.

The recognized problem with R&D funding is that the funds are considered discretionary spending in the budget. This means that science and technology must compete with other national priorities for a share of the budget. Koizumi noted that the government will have about a $500 billion deficit in each of the next two years, a shortfall that he says makes it unlikely that S&T funding will rise. He said that congressional leaders have already decided to put off voting on discretionary spending legislation for next year, after the presidential election in November.

In another sobering perspective on the future of R&D funding, Peter R. Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, told the forum that it all comes down to mandatory health care costs. "The U.S. fiscal future will be determined primarily by spending on Medicare and Medicaid," Orszag said.

Orszag's point was that federal spending on health care will become so overwhelming over the next few decades that just about all discretionary spending will have to be eliminated. Ironically, much of the problem with soaring health care costs has its roots in science and technology. "Most of the spending growth actually comes from the rapid introduction of new, expensive technologies. These have health benefits, but they significantly raise costs," Orzag explained.

All of this means that the outlook on future federal support for science looks grim, forum speakers concluded. "The pent-up demands from every sector of U.S. society that depends on federal funding are so great that I wouldn't be surprised to see R&D funding stagnant or declining over the next several years," said Christopher T. Hill, professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University (GMU).

Hill thinks that the public's inability to understand what scientists are doing and a growing frustration with the "failure" of science and technology to solve the world's major problems will "make the public less likely to remain convinced that expenditures on science and technology are an unalloyed good thing." One consequence of this will be a shift of government funding priorities in S&T. "Programs of research to address critical national problems will get new life as funds are shifted from fundamental research to problem-solving research on the grand problems of our time," Hill said.

SUCH A SHIFT in R&D spending was a common theme among many speakers. James Canton, chief executive officer and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures, a corporate think tank, said that scientists will be challenged to directly address the global problems of food, water, energy, and climate change. "The conversation is changing toward meeting these challenges. As a world leader, the U.S. has the responsibility to respond to these challenges," Canton said.

"We desperately need the science and technology community to start addressing this global situation" added Melinda L. Kimble, senior vice president at the United Nations Foundation, which is concerned with health, population, and the environment. "Scientists have traditionally let policymakers decide what to do with technology, but there is a disconnect between what is being funded and what needs to be done," Kimble said.

The anticipated shrinkage of federal funding for basic research will also increase pressure on scientists and engineers to do more cooperative work with their counterparts in other nations. GMU's Hill described an evolving world where more and more nations open up and become wealthy enough to conduct their own R&D. "There will be a movement toward a worldwide free market for advanced science and technology talent, involving both immigration and international partnerships of all kinds," he said. "A hallmark of a scientist or engineer will be a demonstrated ability to work across cultures with people of diverse backgrounds and interests."

In the entrepreneurial world, some of these changes have already occurred, according to Ravi Kapur, president of Anudeza Consulting Group. Kapur says that U.S. venture capital firms are becoming more risk averse, meaning that the discoverers of new inventions, notably scientists and engineers, are finding it increasingly difficult to find in this country the financial support they need to turn their inventions into commercial products. One result of this is that money from other nations—especially Russia, China, and India—is becoming available for risky technology start-ups. "There is already a changing landscape for science and technology investment for all parties involved," Kapur noted.

Some speakers at the conference maintained that if the political environment for S&T could be improved, then more progress may be made on problems such as energy, water, and health care. Gilbert S. Omenn, professor of internal medicine, human genetics, and public health at the University of Michigan and a past president of AAAS, said the election of a new U.S. president this year is an opportunity to reorder the nation's priorities.

"THE NEXT PRESIDENT must address the long-deferred needs in energy, global environment, the economy, the workforce, education, and health," Omenn said. The next president also "needs to make clear that the contributions from science and technology are critical to our nation's future and to strengthen the base for research and innovation and policy advice."

Forum participants agreed that there is a crucial need for stronger science advice. "An experienced, diverse group should identify and recommend candidates for the president's assistant for science and technology," Omenn said. "And that position should be selected and announced at the same time as other assistants to the president." It should also be a Cabinet-level post, he added.

John E. Porter, a partner in the law firm Hogan & Hartson and a former Republican member of Congress with a long history as an advocate for science, also said that the time is ripe for political change and that the S&T community itself ought to become more active in driving that change. Porter told the conference that one should not just rely on the people in Washington to take action on science and technology policies.

Scientists and engineers need to get much more involved in the political process if they want to see real change, Porter said. Specific actions that Porter told stakeholders they could employ include asking candidates about their positions on science issues, offering science advice to a local congressional candidate, and even running for office themselves. "You can sit on your fingers," Porter said, "or you can go outside your comfort zone and get into the game and make a difference for science."

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