2010 and Beyond: US R&D Policies to Address the Challenges Ahead

bridges vol. 24, December 2009 / Norm Neureiter on S&T in Foreign Policy

By Norman P. Neureiter

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Norman Neureiter
Norman Neureiter

Two months ago, on October 21, 2009, I was invited as the only American speaker to address more than 600 attendees at the 2nd European Research Area (ERA) conference that took place in Brussels. What a splendid concept the ERA is - an effort to do for European science what European Statesmen have been doing since 1949 in bringing 27 nations together to create the EU itself.

For more info about the ERA and this excellent  conference, please look at guest columnist Manfred Horvat's Letter from Brussels in this issue of bridges. A good friend and great expert onEuropean R&D policies, Manfred provides a superb, in-depth account of the start of the ERA in Lisbon ten years ago, its present condition and a look into its future. 

In this final bridges column of mine for 2009, I am sharing some of the views I presented at the ERA meeting about the present direction of US R&D policies, as well as some of the huge challenges facing the US Government at this time. Coupled with some of the thoughts in Manfred's column, I would hope these views might serve the cause of increasing the cooperation between the EU and the US  in science and technology in the years to come.

In January it will be just one year since new people moved into the White House in Washington. President Obama has himself made very clear his attitude toward science in numerous public venues. Here are some quotes from his April speech to the National Academy of Sciences: "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before... We are restoring science to its rightful place ... the days of science taking a backseat to ideology are over... [we want ] to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information."

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick – all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} That is strong language and it was loudly applauded by an audience that had often been frustrated by the previous administration's policies that seemed either to ignore the scientific facts or obfuscate them with ideology - especially in the areas of climate change, environmental protection, and government regulation. The President also moved quickly to appoint leading scientists, including two Nobel Prize winners, to very senior positions in the Government as well as to his Council of S&T Advisors.

So what are the current US scientific priorities and trends? In his Academy speech, President Obama laid out a rich menu of objectives. He wants to eventually get the total investment in R&D - that's both public and private sectors together - above 3 percent of GDP, the same as the EU goal. The present US number is 2.68 percent. Of course, we hope that the increase will come from raising the numerator, not lowering the GDP (which unfortunately may still happen.)

For the US Government Fiscal Year 2010 began on October 1, even though the funding bills for science are only now emerging from the Congress and going to the President for signature. However, the trends are pretty clear. And 2010 also benefits from this year's economic stimulus package, which was spread over two years to get the economy moving again after the financial collapse.

The stimulus package provided huge increases for the basic research agencies: NIH, NSF, NIST, and the Office of Science in DOE, and more is expected in future years. The goal is to double the budgets for the physical science agencies (not NIH) from their 2006 base by 2016. The average success rate on proposals at NSF was 25 percent in 2008, up from 23 percent two years before. At NIH it was 22 percent in 2008 and is projected to be 20 percent for 2009 and 2010. These numbers are considered too low; there is a general consensus that about 30 percent would be acceptable.

The broad areas of focus behind the total 2010 budget request are education, healthcare, and energy, with expenditures not only for R&D. The President also sees global warming as a serious threat and has set an aggressive goal for reduction of carbon emissions - down 80 percent by 2050. So energy efficiency and renewable energy are top priorities. Great progress in biomedical research is expected from continued application of the advances in the physical sciences to the life sciences and the curing of disease. Cancer will be a major target, as will autism. There is a plan to triple the number of NSF graduate fellowships in order to increase the number of young Americans pursuing scientific and engineering careers. There will be major efforts to improve science and math education in elementary and high schools as well as to increase the number of qualified science and math teachers. NIH will receive homeland security R&D funding to develop vaccines against bioattacks - the so-called Bioshield program. The reform of electronic health record systems will also be a key program. And the president is asking his Council of S&T Advisors to work on national strategies to  nurture and sustain a culture of scientific innovation. Very simply, at the policy level, science and technology are riding high in this Administration, although there is some concern about 2011 when the stimulus money is gone and budgets are expected to remain tight.

The concern is because the US has some serious problems. Unemployment has reached 10 percent nationwide, and the state of the economy is still considered fragile. The total federal budget for 2010 of about $3.6 trillion and a deficit of some $1.2-$1.3 trillion, will keep the dollar weak. The present total US gross debt is about $12 trillion, over 80% of the annual GDP. And Congress has become highly polarized on almost every issue, making compromise difficult and progress slow.

Nor is there any shortage of challenges on the foreign policy side. The continuing involvement in Iraq and intensifying problems in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the nuclear challenges of Iran and North Korea, can all take unexpected turns and increase budget pressures. That can mean increasing tensions in the Congress as we move into 2010, with mid-term congressional elections coming in the Fall. By then, voters will be looking for some clear successes of the Obama policies.

Another major issue for decision in the coming months is the future of America's nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Posture Review is now being prepared and will define the nuclear policy for this Administration. The results will influence the size of the nuclear stockpile, the deployment strategy, and plans for maintenance and security of all US nuclear weapon assets. It will also be a key indicator of what steps the US believes it can take toward the avowed long-term goal of a zero-nuclear-weapons world and the vision that President Obama laid out in his Prague speech. These issues are certain to be hotly debated.

A very serious issue in the US research community is that, perhaps for the first time, our great public research universities are concerned about their competitiveness in global competition for the best students and professors.  Other countries seem to have concluded that US scientific leadership derives from the excellence of our universities and that model is being copied, with well-funded institutions arising in many places. At the same time, with state budgets in the US declining due to lower tax revenues, and federal research grants not fully covering total overhead expenses, these universities are hurting. A National Academy study on the future of US research universities is just now getting underway.

A related issue is the reverse brain drain of foreign scientists and engineers.  After earning advanced degrees in the US and working here for a number of years, many of these professionals are returning home. China has been actively recruiting their expatriates with offers of first-rate laboratories, competitive salaries, and attractive living conditions. Many Indians have left, often to work in US subsidiaries in India or to apply their US-acquired management and enrepreneurial skills in India's booming economy. Between the loss of talent through our visa policies and the increased opportunities for scientists abroad, the long postwar paradigm of US dependence on immigrant scientists may be changing. We must convince more Americans to choose careers in science and technology. I think this makes international S&T cooperation an even greater imperative.

Just a word about industrial R&D, which accounts for about two-thirds of the total US R&D spending. That total in 2007 was $369 billion. Companies today do little or no basic research. An understanding has emerged that the government will be the principal source of funding for basic research and the creation of scientific knowledge - much of it done at universities where teaching and research go hand in hand. Companies draw on both the knowledge and the trained researchers that emerge from the universities, and invest their corporate funds in applied R&D to develop the innovative products they hope will succeed in the marketplace. Another extremely important driver of innovation in the US is entrepreneurism, fueled by venture capital, so-called angel monies, and the US government's funds for small business innovation research programs (SBIR).

In corporations today, there appears to be a clear trend toward an open innovation system. That means more networking, more partnerships, more alliances, more ties of industry to universities - looking for new ideas not just nationally, but on a global basis. That's also why US research universities  have patent and licensing offices, hoping to profit from their professors' inventions. The drive for innovation is universal, but the process is not trivial. Berkeley Professsor Henry Chesbrough begins his book, Open Innovation, with the line: "Most innovations fail. And companies that don't innovate die." It is a highly competitive world.

But just because of the intense competition, we must never forget  the value of cooperation. AAAS is a firm believer in the importance of scientific cooperation, as shown in its many activities and, particularly, in its Science Diplomacy program. While in Brussels for the ERA conference, I also was able to attend the official kickoff ceremony at the Austrian Mission for two cooperative projects, BILAT-USA and LINK2US, that had been jointly developed between AAAS and four European partners: the Austrian Research Promotion Agency and institutions from Italy, Hungary, and Luxemburg - all under the EC's 7th Framework Program (FP 7).

Since I well remember the dismal outlook for science in Austria on my first visit there in 1965, I have been greatly pleased to see Austria's vigorous S&T community today with full involvement in the Framework Program.  There is also a personal reason for this feeling. My father was born in Vienna, and my  grandfather (Ferdinand Edler von Neureiter) was ennobled by the last Emperor of Austria for his role in creating what today is the Vienna University of Economics and Business.

With the ERA, the EU has taken a great stride toward regional integration of its science and research, and its capacity for innovation and global competitiveness. I also like to see the ERA in its openness to participation of non-EU countries as one giant agent of science diplomacy. And I look forward with great enthusiasm to the further development of these cooperative US-EU ties in the coming years, as well as increased US-EU science cooperation in engaging countries in the developing world on the great societal problems we share in common. With such thoughts and hopes, I wish you all a happy and peaceful holiday season, as well as a vigorous return to the formidable challenges of 2010.


The author, Norman Neureiter, has been a senior advisor to the  AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy (CSTSP) and the Center for Science Diplomacy (CSD)  since July 2009.