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Eating Our Own

by Nancy B. Jackson, ACS President-Elect
October 25, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 43

Nancy B. Jackson, ACS President-Elect
Credit: Kyle Zimmerman
Credit: Kyle Zimmerman

A mutually suspicious relationship has long existed in the federally funded research and development community in the U.S. It is a mistrustful rivalry that is rarely discussed in public, but it permeates the R&D community and generates heated complaints among colleagues in private discussions. I am referring to the long-standing disrespect that many university research professors and national laboratory researchers feel for each other.

I have witnessed this friction throughout my entire career, and I see it escalating as federal research funding tightens. When I chaired the National Academy of Sciences review of the Department of Energy’s Basic Energy Sciences program in catalysis research, committee members entered the study with preconceived notions. University professors thought national labs received money without proper peer review and received more than their “fair” share. The professors also thought that too much funding was wasted on big instrumentation at national laboratories.

National lab scientists thought university professors were handed money for too many years without much scrutiny (for political reasons, because every university has at least one congressman). The dollar-to-dollar productivity comparison between professors and national lab researchers seemed remarkably “unfair” to the laboratory representatives. Professors, national lab researchers pointed out, have nine months of their salary paid from sources other than grants and access to cheap labor in the form of graduate students, who are often foreign. Lab scientists, in contrast, depend upon research funding to pay for 100% of their salaries and have no cheap labor. They are, however, good employers of B.S.-level, U.S.-citizen scientists. As the study group reviewed the data, both sides were surprised to find that the facts did not necessarily match their preconceptions.

Another complaint I often hear is that professors do not see strong fundamental research emerging from the national laboratories despite the large sums of funding they receive. Conversely, I hear lab scientists refer to professors as “entitled” and not doing research relevant to solving our nation’s many challenges.

I was reminded of this again recently. During the editing of the report on the ACS president’s Task Force on Innovation in the Chemical Enterprise, one member wished to point out that, despite the “lavish” funding of national laboratories, there really was no innovation coming from them. Ironically, many laboratory energy researchers who see the significant efficiency improvements and technology developments emerging from the national laboratories in solar and biofuel technologies wonder why the government wastes any money on university energy research at all.

Because the national labs are not particularly involved in biomedical research, this rivalry has been an issue for the chemical scientists on the physical science side of chemistry. The stereotypes and biases are most often found among materials chemists, nanoscience researchers, and energy researchers.

This situation is extremely self-destructive for the chemical science community as a whole. Considering the relatively small federal R&D support for physical science in the U.S., we are doing ourselves and the nation a disservice by wasting energy fighting one another. Our society and nation would best be served if we joined together and understood and supported one another.

Lab scientists need to understand that the fundamental research done at research universities is key to our economic and scientific future and the health of our future workforce. University professors need to understand that the national laboratories, filled with talented scientists and engineers, make a profound contribution to national security, but a changed mission and the deterioration of the government-owned, contractor-operated management model has left the labs inefficient and often struggling.

Despite the frequent complaints from both sides, they are each guilty of spending a significant amount of time and money securing federal research funding. It is a matter of semantics: Universities lobby, and laboratories do “program development.”

The hostility between the two groups is not, of course, universal; there are many instances of productive collaboration and respect for the other’s mission, culture, and challenges.

The American Chemical Society can be a catalyst for better understanding and support for both communities. The inefficiencies that come from this rivalry and lack of respect hurt us all. The political reality is that both national laboratories and big research universities are here to stay. In science, a rising tide raises all boats. Only if we understand one another’s challenges and work together for the good of research in the chemical and other physical sciences will our federal R&D funding be most productive.

We need national laboratory scientists fighting for the continued health and support of large public universities during this time of dire state budgets and federal budget deficits. We need eminent university professors insisting on well-managed, -directed, and -supported national laboratories. Both types of institutions have much to offer the national R&D enterprise. Let’s get to work.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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