Publisher's Corner:
Rising to the challenge

George Rupp

Current federal research policy illustrates the cliché that challenges are often also opportunities. Public investments in science in the United States have been slipping behind those of our competitors overseas, at a time when scientific knowledge is increasingly important to the national and global economy. Yet the value of scientific innovation appears to be one of the few points on which the executive and legislative branches currently agree.

Members of both houses of Congress, on both sides of the aisle, have responded to the nation's need for a stronger commitment to science and technology. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced bills to double non-defense research and development over periods of ten to twelve years. At the same time, the President's budget contains a 32 percent increase for science over the next five years. Whatever specific results may emerge from the fall Congressional session, this apparent bipartisan consensus, recognizing R&D as a pillar of national strength, is welcome and timely.

According to a report recently prepared by members of the Council on Competitiveness, it is critical to keep research support among the highest national priorities. The U.S. has an admirable record of recent technical innovation, but sustaining that record will require higher federal research and training expenditures, better performance by American school children in science and mathematics, and a drastic upgrading of the work force's knowledge base to keep up with the industries of tomorrow. Comments Silicon Valley venture capitalist William Hambrecht, who headed the Council's panel along with Pfizer, Inc., chairman William Steere and Johns Hopkins University president William Brody, "We are not providing the basic funding to develop the fundamentals you need for innovation: people and talent." The impact of a shrinking talent pool may not be perceptible for years, Hambrecht notes, but improvidence today will come back to haunt us.

Current American R&D expenditures in health care and other critical fields, the report contends, will have to rise to meet a series of challenges:

  • the emergence, re-emergence, and accelerated global spread of a host of infectious diseases;

  • a population whose medical-care needs will skyrocket as the post-World War II demographic bulge (the so-called boomer generation) expands the geriatric population;

  • public fears about adverse effects of biotechnology, porous information security, and other undesirable consequences of a high-tech age;

  • the acceleration of other nations' efforts to catch up to the United States in technical expertise, often drawing on the talent of their citizens who have trained at American universities before returning to their home countries; and

  • in some fields, regulatory and intellectual-property systems that have not kept pace with technological development or that strain the relations between universities and industry.

Historical change in America's technological infrastructure places much of the country's future in the hands of today's researchers, particularly those working in universities. When machine tools, electrification, and other craft-based industries were the predominant growth sectors driving the economy, the macroeconomic role of higher educational institutions was easy to overlook. But today's economy depends on scientific knowledge that is communicated largely at the university level. The university laboratory has replaced the shop floor as the primary birthplace of practical innovation. To focus on just one measure of economic health, the Committee for Economic Development reports a 20 to 30 percent return on investments in R&D--nearly double the historical returns from the stock market. More than half the nation's economic growth since the late 1940s depends on scientific and technological innovation, originating in large part from academic settings. The increasing importance of knowledge-based enterprises such as telecommunications and biotechnology, along with tomorrow's promises in nascent fields like nanotechnology and biomimicry, implies that this trend will continue or accelerate.

The fertile partnership among the public sector, the private sector, and the university sector is responsible for many vital aspects of America's overall standard of living. Our system of university-based research is not perfect, but it works well. Some 200 research universities across the country--highly diverse, flexible, and multifaceted institutions that compete fiercely for funds and students--engage the talents of our brightest scientists (and scientists-to-be) and create productive partnerships with federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The results of these efforts have transformed the human condition in our lifetime by helping create good jobs, spawn new industries, protect the environment, strengthen national defense, and yield valuable new medical treatments, while also offering powerful insights into aspects of basic science, including the chemistry of life itself. These successes are not grounds for being overoptimistic or complacent but rather reasons to keep nurturing this system, increasing the odds in favor of further and greater advances.

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GEORGE RUPP, Ph.D., is president of Columbia University and a member of the Council on Competitiveness.