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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. research.

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 fields."

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.