Highlights from committee U.S. Senate hearing: Leveraging the U.S. science and technology enterprise

The U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing last week to discuss the future of U.S. research and development investments.  The hearing centered on how funded research can translate into innovations in industry and in turn, the economy.

The committee brought in expert witnesses from academia, the private sector and a government advisory board to testify and provide insight on possible strategies that the committee can utilize in drafting new legislation to leverage U.S. investments in the research enterprise in support of President Barack Obama’s America COMPETES Reauthorization Act which provides investments into research and development to increase the competitiveness of the United States.

The witnesses highlighted the effects of administrative burdens and uncertain funding streams on the productivity of researchers.

Witness testimony highlights

Kelvin Droegemeier – former vice chairman of the National Science Board

  • “The COMPETES framework should recognize the importance of this group to our nation’s competitiveness and work toward ensuring that careers in R&D–including those in universities—are attractive to the next generation of scientists and engineers. From the Federal Government standpoint, one key component of this is steady, predictable funding for scientific research. Unpredictable changes to Federal funding for research and “boom-bust” cycles can significantly disrupt the balance between the number of STEM PhDs and the availability of permanent jobs where PhDs can use their specialized training in the academic sector.”
  • “… Knowledge gained from discovery research in all disciplines strengthens our innovation ecosystem and ensures that the United States is maximally prepared for an unpredictable future. Because we do not know a priori how we will solve the great challenges of the 21st century or even what all of these challenges will be, it is imperative that we combine robust support for core research in all fields of science with interdisciplinary and collaborative initiatives.”

Jeannette Wing –vice president for research at Microsoft

  • “A skilled workforce provides a tremendous return on federal investment; therefore, it is imperative that scientists and engineers dedicate the majority of their time to the research activity that drives the U.S. innovation ecosystem. However, added rules and regulations have diverted researchers’ time and focus from their intended jobs and created unnecessary administrative overhead. The National Science Board’s 2014 report, , cited a 2005 finding from the Federal Demonstration Partnership that federally supported researchers spend, on average, 42 percent of their time on administrative tasks. Seven years later, that average remained at 42 percent despite collective efforts to alleviate regulatory burdens on researchers.”Reducing Investigators’ Administrative Workload for Federally Funded Research
  • “…The committee recommends that the country commit to an annual real growth rate of at least 4 percent for basic research. We recognize that the country is still recovering from the recent recession, yet, as Restoring the Foundation notes, from 1975 to 1992 the federal investment in basic research grew at an average annual inflation-adjusted rate of 4.4 percent despite serious political and economic challenges, including the 1973 oil embargo, the Great 12 Inflation of 1979-1982, and the final tumultuous years of the Cold War. During this period, Republicans and Democrats, in spite of a number of policy differences, were in agreement that federal funding of basic research was a national priority. However, in the subsequent two decades, from 1992-2012, even taking into account the doubling of the NIH budget, the average growth rate was roughly 0 percent… Since the federal investment in such research is roughly $30 billion per year, 4 percent growth corresponds to a long-range target of increasing the federal basic research investment from 0.2 percent to 0.3 percent of gross domestic product over a period of 10 to 15 years.”

Robert D. Atkinson – president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation

  • “… Given the decline in R&D funding and the dramatic increase in technological competencies of our economic competitors, we can no longer simply hope that some of the R&D funding ends up actually being used. This is why the COMPETES reauthorization is so important, because it focuses on improving the efficiency of the process by which federally funded knowledge creation leads to actual innovation and U.S. jobs. At one level this is good news. Improving the efficiency of the scientific and engineering research system can provide significant benefits at a lower budgetary impact than increasing funding without improving the efficiency. But continuing to underfund research while also not improving the efficiency of the system with the kinds of measures in COMPETES is a recipe for underperformance. And, to be clear, doing both is ideal: more federal funding for R&D and a better commercialization and tech transfer system.”
  • “… The current federal system of funding R&D still is based on a ‘linear model’ of research that simply assumes that basic research will get transferred into new products and services. For example, only 2 percent of the National Science Foundation budget goes to programs focused on the development and commercialization of knowledge through industry university partnerships. Given institutional inertia, coordination and communication challenges, and lack of funding for proof of concept research, overcoming the ‘valley of death’ between basic research and its real-world application is often the most difficult part of the innovation process. If this jump is not able to be made, the benefits of the money spent on knowledge discovery will be more limited.”

David Munson – dean of the University Of Michigan College Of Engineering

  • “Probably the greatest inefficiency in the Federal research system is caused by the low funding rates of many agencies. For example, at NSF fraction of research proposals funded has slipped to 20 percent. This means that faculty members are spending a huge fraction of their time writing proposals and also reviewing proposals of their colleagues, with the high probability that these proposals will not be funded… One reason the NSF and other government agencies receive so many proposals is because the probability of funding is so low. When a proposal is not funded, the faculty member typically reworks the proposal and then resubmits it or else creates a proposal on a different topic. This proliferation of research proposals is bogging down the system, causing a waste of time and resources, and is part of the reason for low funding rates. In a sense we are running the research system at an inefficient operating point. In my opinion, it would be far more effective to fund the research agencies at a somewhat higher level, driving down the number of research proposals that are written and reviewed, in which case funding rates would rise and researchers would spend far more of their time actually doing research.”

Cross-agency interactions were mentioned by witnesses as a way to develop a holistic view of the research being supported across the country and a way to leverage the investments of the federal government. A large part of the hearing also emphasized the unique role that the federal government plays in the research ecosystem.  Funding unpredictable basic research, which private companies do not, may yield future innovations and provide unforeseen economic growth.

“Simply put, science and technology are critical to American competitiveness, and we need to focus on the entire ecosystem from STEM or STEAM, to basic research, to application and commercialization, to the inspiration that results from ambitious endeavors like exploring space and other frontiers of science.  That whole ecosystem of discovery and innovation is absolutely critical to American competitiveness,” – Said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

View the full hearing testimony.

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