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What should be the research goals of nation? How should research institutions adapt to the post-Cold War world? Would the creation of a quasi-independent agency further the nation's R&D goals? In this age of budget cutting, how should scientists and engineers justify R&D funding? What is the relationship between basic and "targeted" research? Is R&D tied to the economic helath of the nation? Viewer comments
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Dr. Richard Nicholson, executive director of AAAS and a participant in this forum, provides his general assessment of the current of American R&D.
Kristian Lande of Austin, TX, asks:
With rare exception, politicians are notorious for being short sighted when it comes to R&D allocation. Do you think it would be possible and desirable to turn more of these decisions over to a quasi-private agency, something like Japan's MITI, and what sort of public support do you think this would have?
Dr. Richard Nicholson of AAAS reponds:
Actually, all things considered, I would say that U.S. politicians have in fact been remarkably far-sighted and generous in their support of science following the end of WW II. Indeed, our political system deserves much of the credit for the fact that the U.S. today is the world leader in science.
After WW II Americans recognized the tremendous contributions science and engineering made to the Allied victory. As a result, politicians took steps to ensure that we would have such a resource base in the future. Interestingly, one prevalent view at the time was that support of research should be through an apolitical process. In the end that did not happen, but that is how the word "foundation" got into the name of a government agency (the National Science Foundation).
In my opinion, for better or worse, it would not now be possible to go back and create a "quasi-private" system of support.
Mr. Micheal McGeary of McGeary and Smith responds:
In a time of increasing economic competition from other countries, it is tempting to look for better ways to target research, for example, as the Japanese seemed to when they were taking big chunks of market share from America's traditional industries, such as automobiles, and from newer industries, such as consumer electronics.
Currently, however, America's industries have become much more competitive, mostly through better management and other changes downstream or separate from R&D proper; and the Japanese are greatly increasing their support of basic research (12.8 percent from 1995 to 1996, for example) to position that country better for the long-haul. American research has been the world's most creative and productive, although American industry did not always capitalize on it. That creativity and productivity stems in part from decentralization and diversity, and we should be careful not to harm it by trying to impose too much central direction, for example, by creating a federal department of science and technology or its equivalent.
By the way, at least historically, politicians heading agencies and congressional committees have been very supportive of R&D, even basic research, which is rather remarkable considering the esoteric and long-term nature of scientific research. The problem is that the discretionary budget, 15 percent of which supports R&D, is the part of the federal budget being cut the most to reduce the deficit, which greatly limits the political friends of science. And the discretionary budget is slated to head steadily downward in the coming years unless deficit-reduction efforts shift to entitlement programs.
Dr. Wesley Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University responds:
I would suggest that politicians do not have any monopoly on either short-sightedness (or, for that matter, far-sightedness). Witness the R&D and technology decisions made in our auto and steel industries through the 1970's. At the same time, the private sector has made some exceptionally prescient decisions as well. Likewise, we can point to public sector technology policies that have been failures and successes.
The trouble is that it is difficult to know beforehand what the correct path might be. The best we can do is try to create incentive and other structures that are conducive to what may be called "far-sightedness." These include efforts at making information as widely available as possible, encouraging technological diversity (see above) where possible, and providing "patient capital" not only for the private sector, but the public sector as well. These are all, however, rather difficult things to do.