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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Hearing on the Role of the Federal Government in the Funding of Research

April 22, 1998

The federal government's role in funding basic research is irreplaceable, and its commitment needs to be renewed and upheld, lawmakers told.

This is the fifth hearing held by the Science Committee's National Policy Study. This hearing examined the role of the federal government in the funding of research.

Dr. Claude Barfield, Director of Science and Technology Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC started out by emphasizing the importance of the Vannevar Bush report in 1945 - that Bush made his policy statement understandable in order to sell it. He tied it to practical things like the war against disease and the nation's defense. The report was flawed, he noted, in that it made science seem linear. It depicted a relatively straightforward progression from basic research to applied to commercialization. He stated further that it viewed basic research as being performed without the thought of a practical end. But, he noted a great deal of research since 1945 has been targeted, and it is these targeted research areas that the U.S. has emerged with technological predominance. Dr. Barfield stated that targeted research is where successful government funding lies. He talked about former NAS president Frank Press' report - Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology, and the report published by the Council on Competitiveness, guided by former NSF director Erich Bloch, Endless Frontiers, Limited Resources. He said he supports the premises of the Press report over the Council's - that federal funding should favor academic institutions and that the government should encourage, but not directly fund, private commercial technology development except to accomplish mandated government missions or for broadly applicable technologies where government is the only available funder. The Council report's central finding is that R&D partnerships hold the key to success and that a core public mission is to target research required to keep the U.S. economically competitive through programs like the Department of Commerce's ATP. He said that with federal dollars likely to remain scarce, the first national priority should be to expand the federal responsibility toward basic research.

Mr. George Conrades, President, GTE Internetworking, Cambridge, MA. testified on behalf of the Committee for Economic Development (CED) which will release a report on June 4 that looks at various aspects of basic research policy, the benefits to society and makes recommendations to policymakers. Mr. Conrades noted that CED believes the role of the federal government to fund basic research needs to be upheld. The translation of this research into products is successful because of industry. He said the roles of government and industry differ, but are complementary, and stated that the government should not directly fund commercialization. He stated that the greatest benefits of basic research are the least anticipated because results are usually far into the future. He reiterated that federal support is essential and that policymakers should set broad priorities and should diversify, not centralize funding. He said basic research funding in agencies should be based on scientific merit and peer review. He stated that the individual investigators at American universities are the core to U.S. research and that a lack of understanding of engineering and research threaten to undermine this process. He said that remedies begin in the schools and that we must raise awareness in K-12 and attract more women and minorities. He noted during questioning that it was improbable industry could fill the role of the federal government, should that role atrophy, because industry funds targeted research.

Dr. Michael Doyle, Vice President, Research Corporation, Tucson, AZ stated that the main activity of Research Corp. is the support of academic scientists, with awards concentrated in the fields of chemistry, astronomy and physics. He said programs funded are innovative to society, not necessarily of the investigator's prior training, and they look to bring disparate parts together. He stated, however, that as funding for science becomes restricted, research that is a sure thing gets funded at the expense of research on the unknown. He said basic research funding needs to be sustained. He noted that some of Research Corporation's programs have impacted federally funded programs or initiatives like the Chemistry Division of NSF, which now includes high school teachers in their Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, re: Partners in Science.

Mr. William Todd, President, Georgia Research Alliance, Atlanta, GA spoke about the strategic initiative created by business, research universities and the state government to grow and develop the technology industry in Georgia. The architect and manager of the effort is the Georgia Research Alliance, a 501(C) (3) corporation funded and governed by the private sector. The Alliance reached out to the state government in 1990, and since this time state government has invested nearly $200 million into universities through the Alliance matched by $50 million from the private sector. Mr. Todd said the Georgia model is working because investments are managed by state government and private philanthropy as a portfolio; a commercialization center is included in each of the major initiatives developed; and the Alliance has been able to count on the federal government to fully participate in early-stage research through competitively awarded grants to the universities. He noted that the portfolio needs to be balanced at all points along the continuum and early stage research is essential. The federal government should renew its commitment to being the primary sponsor of basic research. It is essential because universities must have a culture that fosters industry research, and without strong support for early stage or basic research, innovation and commercialization by industry will not occur. He noted that states want to partner with the federal government. He stated that the Engineering Research Center, sponsored by NSF, has led to a number of successes in locating important technology industries to the state based on commitments to investing in specific university laboratories that were relevant to the business of the company.

In response to Mr. Ehler's question on the role of the states in funding research, Dr. Barfield said the diversity of funds available is a great strength and the priority for the federal government should be to fund basic research. States may want to go beyond this and fund closer to market, but he has reservations on this use of taxpayer money. Dr. Barfield noted that states are very involved in funding their universities, just not in a grant system. Mr. Conrades agreed with Dr. Barfield on the federal government's role, and added that it would be in the interest of states to collaborate. Dr. Doyle mentioned that foundations providing funds for research do not discriminate based on region or state but funding patterns do reflect institutions willing to provide matching funds, which the Research Corp. asks for. Mr. Todd said he thought the Georgia model could work everywhere with the federal role coming in the early stages of research and state funding in the latter.

In response to Ms. River's question on whether state involvement would move us away from peer review, witnesses agreed that the most equitable way to distribute funds for research was scientific merit/peer review. Dr. Doyle further noted that NSF's EPSCoR program has proved to be essential, while Dr. Barfield feels this program should remain a small portion of federal funding of research.

Members were generally interested in the rate of return, or how to measure, our investment in basic research, and how it has improved our quality of life. Mr. Conrades noted that many technological breakthroughs today, like the Internet, are the result of basic research as far back as the 1890s. Dr. Doyle noted that looking at the percent of GNP directed at basic research over the years will give you a sense of the quality of life. Dr. Barfield joined by saying that about one half to two thirds of our economic growth can be attributed to our technology effort according to economists, but that it is hard to see the basic research component. He further noted that although it is difficult to measure, there is a consensus among economists that the payoff in federal funding of basic research is substantial. He further noted that bipartisan support will continue for federal funding of basic research, however, continued growth in entitlement spending will be detrimental.