NSF & Congress
Hearing Summary: House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research,
Benchmarking U.S. Science: What Can It Tell Us?
October 4, 2000
The House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research discussed
the merits of ranking the U.S.'s international standing
in research fields in a hearing on October 4, 2000.
Chairman Smith opened the session by citing the National
Academies' Experiments in International Benchmarking
of US Research Fields report, released in March
2000 by the Committee on Science, Engineering and
Public Policy (COSEPUP). The hearing focused on the
lessons learned from the report and how they apply
to policy decisions concerning priorities in U.S.
Dr. Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor of North Carolina State
University, chaired the COSEPUP subcommittee that
examined the standing of U.S research in mathematics,
materials science and engineering, and immunology.
She testified that international benchmarking is "an
efficient and reasonably objective evaluation tool."
COSEPUP found it to be "rapid and inexpensive compared
with procedures that rely entirely on the assembly
of a huge volume of quantitative information." Dr.
Fox concluded that "additional benchmarking exercises
could lead to more effective assessment methods, better
understanding of the factors that promote research
excellence, and better decision-making by those who
fund science and technological innovation."
Dr. Robert White, Carnegie Mellon University Professor
and member of the COSEPUP subcommittee, detailed the
quantitative and qualitative methodology used in the
report. These included ranking by an international
panel of experts, analysis of citations and publications,
and prominence in international conferences. The first
technique, a "virtual congress," not only provided
a list of the "best of the best," but also the likely
future position of the U.S. Dr. White reviewed the
findings in each of the three fields examined.
Dr. Eamon Kelly, chairman of the National Science Board,
commended the National Academies for the report, but
said that "international benchmarking, while an important
component of a larger process, is not sufficient by
itself to tell is how much the government should invest
in a given field." International standing "must be
weighed along with the potential public benefits,
the health of our infrastructure for science and engineering
research and education, and the opportunities and
readiness for rapid advancement in specific research
During questioning panelists agreed that international
benchmarking provided a timely, dependable and efficient
snapshot of the state of U.S. research efforts, but
should not be the sole source for policy decisions.
Chairman Smith concurred that benchmarking will show
where we are, but not what Congress should do about
it. Dr. Fox said benchmarking can be used to gauge
where the U.S. should be a leader and where the U.S.
should be at the top, "ready to pounce" on new discoveries.
Mr. Smith commented on the low cost of the National
Academies' study, $40K-$50K per research field according
to Dr. Fox. Immediately, Dr. Kelly noted that any
agency continuing with this analysis will not have
scientists working pro bono, so costs would be higher.
Afterwards, Rep. Morella spurred discussion on whether
benchmarking would be embraced by agencies, especially
in response to GPRA.
Panelists concluded by stressing the importance of
basic research, now an international commodity and
driving force in the economy, and the usefulness of
benchmarking and other assessments in determining
the most effective allocation of limited Federal funds.