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Keeping U.S. R&D In First Place

National science board recommends ways to fend off challenges from global competitors

by David J. Hanson
March 15, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 11

Credit: NSF
Credit: NSF

To maintain global leadership in innovation and technology, the U.S. needs to take a hard look at its national policies on science and engineering research, according to the National Science Board (NSB). The board recommends that the National Science Foundation review its proposal criteria for basic research, that the President’s Office of Science & Technology Policy get federal science agencies to reassess their research portfolios, and that a new national committee be created to respond to international science and engineering competition.

Credit: Jeanne Neville
Credit: Jeanne Neville

The recommendations follow publication of the board’s “Science & Engineering Indicators” 2010 report, the biannual compilation of U.S. and world data on science, engineering, and education (C&EN, Feb. 8, page 44). This year’s report, which came out in January, shows that the U.S. is beginning to lose it technological lead in many areas to other nations, such as India and China. The board’s concern for the U.S.’s economic and competitive future prompted it to prepare a special policy companion to the report, which was released last month.

“NSB wanted to draw attention to these data showing that the trend toward international science and engineering is continuing to be emphasized by developing nations and to raise the question of what the implications might be for the U.S.” says Louis J. Lanzerotti, a research professor of physics at New Jersey Institute of Technology, in Newark, and chairman of the NSB committee that prepared the 2010 indicators report. NSB is the governing body of NSF.

Some of the disturbing international trends the policy companion cites include large increases in R&D expenditures by and in published research articles from Asian nations relative to the U.S. and the large shift of high-technology manufacturing from the U.S. and Japan to other Asian nations. In addition, the policy companion notes that U.S. companies are hiring many more technical and scientific workers for plants they are opening in Asia than they are hiring for their facilities in the U.S.

The goal of the board’s policy recommendations is not to make the U.S. preeminent in everything, Lanzerotti explains, but rather the board says that there are some areas of science and technology that are important to the national interest and that we as a nation need to decide what those areas are and give them sufficient financial support.

The first recommendation is for NSF to reassess its merit review criteria for funding of basic science and engineering research to ensure that the agency is encouraging and supporting truly transformative research that would stimulate domestic economic development and employment. Many other nations have already done this type of review, developed detailed plans, and set goals for specific science and engineering areas in which to concentrate their public research investments, such as in electronics or in pharmaceuticals, the policy companion points out.

“The proposal criteria are where the rubber really meets the road in terms of how NSF reviewers and program managers evaluate proposals,” Lanzerotti tells C&EN. “We are advocating a strong evaluation of those criteria to be certain that the advice we are giving proposers is sufficient for getting the best research. The board has already put together a subcommittee to see if any changes need to be made.”

The board’s second recommendation is for the President’s Office of Science & Technology Policy (OSTP) to engage all the federal agencies that support or perform scientific and engineering research in developing methods to assess the quality of their agency’s research portfolios relative to the activities of other countries. Once the assessment is complete, the board recommends, OSTP and the agencies should work together to change their programs, if needed, to ensure that their research is world-leading.

OSTP is sympathetic to this approach, Lanzerotti says. “The federal agencies must really be looking at benchmarking their research against international activities,” he says. Although OSTP and its advisory group, the National Science & Technology Council (NSTC), already coordinate U.S. research, domestic benchmarking alone is not enough, according to Lanzerotti. “Considering the growth one sees in research articles published and R&D expenditures in other countries over the past decade or more, domestic benchmarking is not sufficient,” he says. “OSTP could be a very strong guiding hand for this.”

The 2010 indicators report expresses particular concern over the growth of private R&D spending by U.S. companies in foreign countries and the long-term challenges this raises. Among the concerns that any OSTP assessment should examine are the health of domestic private R&D activities and its impact on competitiveness and whether increased support of R&D abroad leads to more economic innovation in the U.S. The protection of intellectual property in foreign nations is another area needing evaluation, the indicators report states.

The third recommendation calls for establishing a President’s Council on Innovation & Competitiveness, a panel also recommended in the America Competes Act of 2007. This council would look at the international competition and how the U.S. could respond to challenges in science and technology. Among other things, NSB says, the council would advise on policy issues, such as figuring out the proper relationship between U.S.- and foreign-country-supported R&D and safeguarding nations’ interests in intellectual property. A spokesman for OSTP, however, informs C&EN that George W. Bush, via a presidential memorandum to OSTP in April 2008, authorized NSTC’s Committee on Technology to assume this advisory role. How this affects any implementation of the NSB recommendation is not clear.

John H. Marburger III was director of OSTP for almost eight years during the Bush Administration, when most of the trend data cited in the 2010 indicators report were developed. “OSTP is certainly an important office for considering such proposals,” he says. “It runs scores of interagency committees, working groups, and task forces, several of which could provide an appropriate response to the NSB recommendations.”

But international R&D benchmarking is complicated, Marburger warns. “It is extremely difficult to make international comparisons of any kind because of the completely different way other countries define and fund research. If the suggested benchmarking is something like international peer review of programs, then that is feasible,” he says. Many federal agencies already have non-U.S. members on their scientific advisory panels, he adds, and comparisons between U.S. and international science and technology programs may have already been done.


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