Basic research: the pacemaker of progress

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6 december 2012 | A world with a lot of development, but little research is the nightmare of President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Freeriding on the basic research of others would cause a worldwide “scramble for diminishing returns.”

The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology – dubbed PCAST – is chaired by John P. Holdren, an expert on climate change, and Eric Lander, genomics expert.

The issue is both quantitative and qualitative, says the PCAST-report to President Obama. “Increased competition, including international competition, is causing U.S. industry to do a smaller share of all basic research. That is, in the R&D spectrum, industry’s development (“D”) is increasing much faster than its research (“R”). Yet this basic research is the underlying platform on which applied research and engineering development are built.”

“At the same time, other countries’ investments in basic and early applied research are increasing. Just as the United States has lost a large portion of its manufacturing to other countries, it is now in danger of losing its advantage in invention and discovery, potentially an even greater calamity.”

Abundant flow of inventions

“Just as the Nation works to rebuild domestic manufacturing within the United States, and ensure unimpeded access to world markets for its private-sector industry, the Nation must also work to ensure that industry will have immediate, close access to an abundant flow of inventions and discoveries, like those that have always fuelled U.S. competitiveness. For this to happen, proactive policies and transformative changes in U.S. educational and research institutions are needed.”

The duality of R&D, to which basic research and practical applications are inextricably linked in a single science and engineering enterprise, is an essential feature of our success and a theme of this report.

Not at all interested in application

In July 1945 Dr. Vannevar Bush advised President Harry Truman: “The most important ways in which the Government can promote industrial research are to increase the flow of new scientific knowledge through support of basic research, and to aid in the development of scientific talent.”

Vannevar Bush stated that “Basic research is the pacemaker of technological progress” and clearly described the interconnection between basic science and practical application. “The scientist doing basic research may not be at all interested in the practical applications of his work, yet the further progress of industrial development would eventually stagnate if basic scientific research were long neglected.”

No-one with a long term agenda

John P. Holdren and Eric Lander remark that the focus on basic research in 1945 still holds true for the U.S. today. Recently, the United States has been investing less  in R&D than other leading and emerging nations invest. Moreover, U.S. industry has been shifting its investments toward applied R&D, narrowing the support for basic and early-stage applied research, which is crucial to transforming innovation.

The recent PCAST-report predicts: “If U.S. willingness to support basic scientific research is undermined […], the United States will in effect cede leadership to other countries. An even worse outcome occurs if other countries, acting without U.S. leadership, make the same mistake, leading to a zero-sum world in which no country invests in long-term basic research for the future, while all scramble to compete over the diminishing returns from past investments.”

No threats, opportunities

Times of transformation are also times of opportunity. In the main text of the PCAST-report, we recommend a series of actions that follow from what we see as five key opportunities:

• Key Opportunity #1. The Nation has the opportunity to maintain its world-leading position in R&D investment, structured as a mutually supporting partnership among industry, the Federal Government, universities, and other governmental and private entities.

• Key Opportunity #2. The Federal Government has the opportunity to enhance its role as the enduring foundational investor in basic and early applied research in the United States. It can adopt policies that are most consistent with that role. Federal policy can seek to foster a sustainable R&D enterprise in which, when research is deemed worth supporting, it is supported for success.

• Key Opportunity #3. Federal agencies have the opportunity to grow portfolios that more strategically support a mix of evolutionary vs. revolutionary research; disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary work; and project-based vs. people-based awards.

• Key Opportunity #4. There is the opportunity for government to create additional policy encouragements and incentives for industry to invest in research, both on its own and in new partnerships with universities and the National Laboratories.

• Key Opportunity #5. Research universities have the opportunity to strengthen and enhance their additional role as hubs of the innovation ecosystem. While maintaining the intellectual depth of their foundations in basic research, they can change their educational programs to better prepare their graduates to work in today’s world. They can become more proactive in transferring research results into the private sector.

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