AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy

The AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy took place on May 5 and 6 this year. The Forum is the official release of the AAAS Report XXXVI: Research and Development FY 2012 to which CRA contributes a chapter. Presentations and audio of most sessions should be available here in a couple of weeks.

The first day of the Forum opened with a morning of R&D budget presentations including one from Dr. John Holdren, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. Highlights from Dr. Holdren’s talk can be viewed here. There were concurrent sessions on Communication Science for Policy, Emerging Issues in Scientific Integrity, and The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill as well as the annual William Carey Lecture given this year by Dr. Charles Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering.

Dr. Vest’s address was titled “US Competitiveness in the 21st Century: Why an Eternal Optimist is Worried”. He started with his three key points: 1) We know what the problems are. 2) We know how to solve them. 3) We do not know how to develop the political will to implement the solutions. He pointed to the Rising Above the Gathering Storm report released in 2005 and the nearly unanimous support in Congress for the passage of the America COMPETES Act. However, this was followed by a lack of appropriations and then the Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Rapidly Approaching Category Five follow up report in 2010. Dr. Vest starkly stated that we are no longer number one in any of the measurable indexes (education, competitiveness, etc). He likened the current situation to the one the US faced against the rise of Japan as a manufacturing powerhouse and said that during that time we learned from Japan and implemented changes that allowed both countries to prosper. He was clear that basic research is an economic necessity and without it we have no chance to compete. He ended by saying that the US needs to “reconnect what we do with what we dream.”

The second day included an innovation roundtable and a plenary titled “US Research Universities: How Many Do We Need? How Many Can We Afford?” The plenary panelists were Toby Smith of the Association of American Universities, Debra Stewart of the Council of Graduate Schools, and Irwin Feller of Pennsylvania State University.

Toby Smith began the panel by stating that universities are necessary for basic research and that US universities are the envy of the world for a couple of reasons. First, projects are funded by merit as chosen by other scientists. Second, research funding supports not only the research itself but also the education and training of the next generation of researchers and scientists. He stated that the role of the federal government in funding basic research must be reaffirmed while at the same time critically examining the unsustainable or broken parts of the system such as academic stovepipes and the loss of students from research fields early on in their academic careers.

Dr. Debra Stewart noted that graduate education is dependent on research universities but stated that global competition for the best and brightest, domestic restrictions on foreign-born students and research, and fiscal problems could destroy the current form of graduate education in the US if the problems are not tackled. She encouraged more evaluation of graduate education programs including rigorous assessment of such things as time to degree and degree completion and attrition. She also stated that it’s important to recognize that most doctoral students go into non-academic jobs and that additional training and skills for these jobs needs to be incorporated.

Dr. Irwin Feller discussed research capacity from his standpoint as an economist. He noted, and got a chuckle from the audience, that universities will always have enough capacity to do all the research the government funds. He said this was not the first time that federal budget issues had cut into research at universities but that this was the first time that state government support for public universities was being cut so significantly as well. His example was that the governor of Pennsylvania has proposed a budget with a cut of 52 percent to universities. Feller noted this is a devolution of higher education from a public good to a private good and encourages the privatization of costs for an undergraduate and graduate education. His solution to all of these problems was fairly simple: always vote for the politician who will fund higher education and research.

AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy