National Academy to Congress: For economic benefits, support basic research

It’s a sobering exercise to go through your day and identify those common, essential things that exist only thanks to fundamental scientific discoveries made in the last 100 years. Of course some of our technology was developed in the Edisonian style, invented without any recourse to a understanding of the underlying science. But so much of the technology of modern life would not be possible without major basic science discoveries made during the 20th century. How we eat, communicate, travel, work and care for our health are all closely tied up with fundamental discoveries made in the past century. In other words, basic science has made a huge contribution to society’s economic growth and well-being.

That basic science generates huge material benefits has been the major justification for federally-funded research since Vannevar Bush’s 1945 manifesto. Unlike, say, the National Endowment for the Arts, which exists mainly to support a vibrant culture, federal science funding is specifically intended to generate tangible economic benefits for society — not simply to support science for its own sake.

And so it’s not surprising that Congress wants to know how well our federal investment in research is paying off. As part of the 2011 America COMPETES act, Congress required the National Academy of Sciences to look into the question of how we should evaluate the economic benefits of federally funded science. The National Academy duly convened a committee, and that committee has produced a report called Furthering America’s Research Enterprise. As I write in my latest column for Pacific Standard, the report is a robust defense of the value of basic research. If you want get the most out of our federal research dollars, the committee argues, then don’t focus directly on economic returns; focus on ensuring that we have a healthy, balanced, and world-class basic research enterprise.

There are a few areas the report doesn’t really cover, like R&D tax incentives, patent law, and federal policy towards industry R&D in general. This report is mostly about money spent on research agencies like the NSF, NIH, NASA, and the DOE. They do argue that the government should more actively support proof-of-concept projects, those risky bridging points between a fundamental discovery and the realization of a technology’s commercial potential.

But mostly it’s about basic research.The U.S. “lacks an institutionalized capability for systematically evaluating the nation’s research enterprise as a whole, assessing its performance, and developing policy options for federally funded research,” and so if Congress is interested in measuring our research performance, it should focus on building that capacity. I’m not optimistic on that point.

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