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Prominent U.S. academics reprise plea for more basic research to fuel innovation


How long can U.S. science lobbyists keep repeating the same message—that boosting federal funding for basic research and removing barriers to innovation is a proven way to ensure economic prosperity—without tuning out their intended audience? And is there any reason to think that those who have resisted their pleas in the past will warm to their arguments this time around?

Neal Lane and Norm Augustine are about to find out. Today the two eminent science policy veterans came to Washington, D.C., to unveil a report from a panel of academic and industry leaders assembled by the Cambridge, Massachusetts–based American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The 152-page report takes its place alongside a half-dozen other tomes in the last decade intended to first warn U.S. policymakers of an impending disaster and then describe how to avert it.

The twin message is captured in the report’s title, Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream. China and other nations are a growing threat to U.S. preeminence in science and innovation, the report notes, and the best response is spending more on basic research and reforming the current U.S. system of innovation.

To add weight to that message, the academy recruited Lane, a former director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and science adviser to former President Bill Clinton, to chair the group with Augustine, a former CEO of defense giant Lockheed Martin and a familiar presence on such panels. Still, members of the panel know they will be fighting to have an impact.

“Sometimes I feel that we’re plowing the ocean,” says panel member James Duderstadt, an engineer and president emeritus of the University of Michigan who also served on a 2012 National Academies committee that examined how to strengthen the U.S. research university system that is the envy of the rest of the world. “Sure, there have been lots of previous studies that covered similar ground, but the feeling was that we needed to pull all of it together to generate some momentum.”

Not that long ago, science lobbyists thought they were on a roll after Augustine chaired a 2005 National Academies’ panel that came out with Rising Above the Gathering Storm. That report is generally credited with convincing Congress to pass the America COMPETES Act, a 2007 law that endorsed a budget doubling for agencies funding basic research in the physical sciences. The bill helped boost budgets at some agencies, but the full doubling never materialized, and COMPETES expired last year after being renewed once in 2010.

At the time of the National Academies’ report, lobbyists thought that the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which received about half of the $32.3 billion the government spent this year on basic research, was in good shape. Congress had recently finished a 5-year doubling of the NIH budget, and the discipline was booming. But since then NIH’s budget has stalled, with the exception of a spike in 2009 to 2010 from its share of the government-wide stimulus package to help the nation recover from the 2008 financial meltdown.

That roller-coaster ride has been devastating to the community, and their cries of pain led the American academy to launch the study released today. “The traditional arguments weren’t winning the day,” explains Lane, a physicist and professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, in a conversation with ScienceInsider before today’s rollout. “People were saying the same things, but it wasn’t enough to convince the policymakers.”

In particular, the new report calls for federal spending on basic research, now $32.3 billion, to reach 0.3% of the nation’s gross domestic product by 2032. That ratio has hovered around its current level of 0.19% for the past 2 decades, rising only to 0.22% at the end of the NIH doubling. Lane admits that such a leap “is rather ambitious.” But he says it’s needed at a time when “science and engineering have become even more important as drivers of economic growth.”


To be sure, some legislators are already on board. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D–WV), chair of the Senate commerce and science committee, has introduced a bill to extend the COMPETES Act that embraces many of the recommendations in the American academy’s report, including steadily growing funding for basic research, creating a national science and engineering policy, making changes in how universities commercialize research discoveries, preparing science majors to use their skills in nonacademic careers, and easing regulations that university administrators say are costly, burdensome, and stifle innovation.

On Friday, Rockefeller wrote an op-ed titled “Seven Reasons Congress Must Reauthorize America COMPETES.” He argues that his bill (S. 2757) will “build on” the success of the previous legislation “to keep the U.S. competitive … and give life to the innovative ideas coming from our research institutions that help make this nation so successful.”

But Rockefeller is retiring this year at the end of the current Congress, and his colleagues are extremely unlikely to take up, much less pass, any reauthorization before they adjourn after a lame-duck session in December. In addition, if the pundits are right, the Republicans will gain control of the Senate next year—and no Republican so far has endorsed Rockefeller’s bill.

Another reason to be skeptical is that Rockefeller’s counterpart in the U.S. House of Representatives, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has won his panel’s support for a contrasting bill (H.R. 4186) that most scientists hope never becomes law. Among the provisions they oppose are changes to the vaunted peer-review process at NSF, one of the agencies covered in COMPETES, and scant growth in its budget.

Lane has been a vocal critic of that bill, and his report explicitly urges the White House and Congress to “reaffirm the principle that competitive expert peer review is the best way to ensure excellence” and asserts that it “should remain the mechanism by which federal agencies make research award decisions.”

As a battle-scarred veteran of Washington, Lane knows the harsh political realities of trying to sway legislators to fund more science at a time that Congress is struggling to trim overall federal spending and the public is indifferent to the issue.

“There have been efforts to get candidates to address these issues,” he says. “But they haven’t succeeded. The reason we don’t hear candidates talk about science is because they don’t get any political points for it. And that’s because the public doesn’t care.”

Academy officials plan to hold a series of meetings around the country to drum up support for the report, the first step in what Lane sees as a long process of changing public attitudes. “We hope that this report will help start a conversation about the things that really matter,” he says.

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