Are We Taking NSF for Granted? (no pun…)


Stumbled upon this interesting article from the UK’s Guardian detailing the recognition growing in the EU about the need for an agency similar to the US’ National Science Foundation as a way to help the union “radically improve its knowledge economy.” The article describes a European commission report earlier this month that noted U.S. R&D funding, currently at about $395 billion (£210 billion) total (that’s industry and federal), has been a key reason for continued US dominance in innovation and hi-tech industries.

As things stand, the 25 member states of the EU spend about £120bn a year investing in research and development. While that sounds like a lot, it pales beside the more than £210bn spent by the United States. This imbalance is one of the factors that have created a “brain drain” of scientific talent from Europe to the US, identified recently by the Royal Society as “particularly noticeable” in the standing of top-quality research teams. Generous research grants, better salaries and conditions in both the private sector and universities have sucked the best and brightest – and not just in science – across the Atlantic and put them to work in the service of the US economy. This reinforces the US’s lead in innovation and hi-tech industries, giving it a strategic and commercial edge.

The Kok report noted glumly that nearly three-quarters of the world’s leading IT companies were from the US, and concluded that “Europe has no option but to radically improve its knowledge economy”. To tackle this gap it recommended establishing a European research council, modelled on the National Science Foundation of the US, as an independent funding body run by scientists and academics, making grants in pure science as well as applied areas such as engineering and social sciences. Yesterday, the issue was debated by EU research ministers, as a first step towards setting up an ERC.
To many interested parties it goes without saying that Europe needs such a body, if only to rid itself of the current cumbersome EU-wide arrangements for research funding. Yet the funding gap between the US and the EU is caused by lower research spending by Europe’s business sector. There is a chicken and egg connection at work: better-targeted and more generous research funding should cause a virtuous spillover into more industrial investment.

It’s discouraging to juxtapose this European perspective of the value of the National Science Foundation and the role of fundamental research in enabling the knowledge economy with recent actions in this country that demonstrate our support for science is waning. One need not look far to see the evidence that federally-supported research has played a key role in the remarkable success of U.S. innovation. My favorite example comes from IT R&D (no surprise). It’s the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board “tire tracks” chart (here’s a larger version (pdf)), which shows 19 areas of research in IT that, with an interplay of federal and industrial support for R&D, became billion dollar markets. The recent cuts by Congress to NSF and other science agencies as part of the FY 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill show a disturbing lack of understanding and support of that crucial federal role.
And, if that weren’t bad enough, we’re doing our best to stem the “brain drain” the Europeans show such great concern about by enacting visa policies that do a fair job of keeping the world’s best and brightest away from our shores. Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria has an interesting piece this week on just that subject: “Rejecting the Next Bill Gates”.
In order to stay competitive we need to remember what made us competitive, and I fear we’re losing sight of that. Clearly, our competitors aren’t.

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Are We Taking NSF for Granted? (no pun…)