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Saving U.S. R&D

Science Policy: Presidential committee recommends focus on basic research, industry R&D

by Andrea Widener
December 5, 2012

U.S. dominance in science and technology is eroding, and fixing it requires a renewed focus on U.S. research, according to a presidential advisory committee.

This recommendation and others from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST) are outlined in a new report, “Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise.”

The report suggests a two-pronged approach to retaining U.S. scientific dominance: strengthen basic research at U.S. universities and national laboratories and encourage industry to keep its research labs in the U.S.

“If we do both, then we can continue to create new industries and new jobs here at home,” says William Press, who cochaired the PCAST working group that wrote the report.

The working group is pushing several practical reforms, most of which other committees have suggested before, Press acknowledged.

The most obvious reform is more money. The report suggests increasing federal research spending to 3.0% of gross domestic product up from the current 2.9%. The working group also wants to increase the stability of federal research funding, at least in part by creating a multiyear budget process for science R&D.

That is a particularly poignant suggestion for National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh. “We are the only developed nation that has an annual budgeting process, which ends up being subannual because of continuing resolutions,” Suresh says. “It is very difficult for us to make long-term plans with our sister agencies abroad for collaborative efforts if we cannot take a long-term perspective.”

The PCAST report points to universities and national labs as the most important catalysts of basic science research. To help them, the working group suggests eliminating red tape that often bogs down the research process. It also encourages efforts to improve undergraduate science education.

To help industry, the working group says the R&D tax credit should be made permanent, increased from 14% to 20%, and modified to make it easier for small businesses to use it. The group also advocates for visa reform to allow more scientists and engineers to stay in the U.S. after they get an advanced degree in a science or engineering field.

“Science and technology are foundational to this nation,” says John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and the President’s science adviser. “The bottom line is that it has never been more important than it is today that we as a nation recommit ourselves to doing whatever is necessary to invigorate our innovation sector.”



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