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PCAST Examines Future of Scientific Research in U.S.

David A. Kronig
Number 93 - July 21, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Last week the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) met to hear from experts about the future of research endeavors in the United States. To open the meeting, PCAST Co-Chair John Holdren noted that fiscal restraints created by the difficult budget environment will make it harder to make the investments necessary in science and technology to maintain American dominance in the fields.

PCAST heard a presentation on the ongoing National Academy of Sciences study on the future of research universities, which is due out later this year. The presenter was Chad Holliday, former CEO of DuPont and Chair of the committee conducting this study under the auspices of the Board on Higher Education and Workforce. According to the project website, the committee was asked to address the question:

“What are the top ten actions that Congress, the federal government, state governments, research universities, and others could take to assure the ability of the American research university to maintain the excellence in research and doctoral education needed to help the United States compete, prosper, and achieve national goals for health, energy, the environment, and security in the global community of the 21st century?”

Holliday explained that the committee was asked to take a broad look at the question, including placing it within a historical context. As such, he said that the recommendations that will be included in the report, which has not yet been made public, will not be designed for “the next budget cycle.” Rather, it will focus ten to twenty years out, though he noted later that the committee will attempt to present its findings in a way that will compel decision makers to take action.

Holliday discussed what the committee has identified as the two previous transformative developments in American research universities. The first was the establishment by the federal government of the land grant universities around the time of the Civil War. The second was in the World War II era, when the partnership between the federal government and universities to support research was expanded from six institutions to over one hundred.

The committee is undertaking a two-pronged investigation of the issue, looking both at incremental adjustments that could improve the current system as well as potential transformative changes, or a “third big thing,” as Holliday characterized it. He suggested that one big idea the committee is examining is how the federal government, universities, and businesses could all partner more effectively.

In response to a question from PCAST Co-Chair Eric Lander, Holliday elaborated on the scope of possible solutions the report will examine. He said it was important for the report to take into account the financial stresses states are facing, and noted that former Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) is a member of the committee. He also discussed the importance of looking at ways the universities themselves can operate more efficiently. Lastly, he said the committee will study ways that universities could have more coordinated partnerships with businesses, while maintaining their environment of academic freedom.

Answering a later question, Holliday emphasized that the committee knows it would be a mistake to try to force all academic fields into business partnerships, using the questioner’s examples of mathematics and astronomy as fields that would not lend themselves well to such partnerships.

Lander also pressed Holliday on how it will be possible to activate business to make research a priority and how businesses will be convinced to invest in and partner with American universities rather than foreign universities. Holliday acknowledged that this would be a challenge and did not offer a concrete answer except to say that the American system has many advantages that make it very resilient.

The next presentations were from Keith Yamamoto, Executive Vice Dean of the University of California San Francisco’s School of Medicine and Venkatesh Narayanamurti, Professor of Technology and Public Policy at Harvard University. They are co-chairs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Study on the Impacts of Federal and Industry Funding of Science, Engineering, and Medicine on American Universities, known as ARISE II.

To open, Yamamoto discussed the context of the report and its predecessor, Advancing Research in Science and Engineering, or ARISE I. This report was narrowly tailored, focused tightly on two key points: how to better support early career faculty, and how to encourage transformational research. By contrast, ARISE II has taken a broad focus and assesses the interfaces between academia, government, and industry as they affect twenty-first century science, engineering, and medicine. Yamamoto said that these interfaces, which evolved in the twentieth century, need to change to better address crucial societal issues.

Narayanamurti discussed the history of the connection between physical science and engineering with industry and manufacturing. He cautioned against creating a strong divide between basic and applied research, saying that in the twentieth century, companies like AT&T and General Electric created their renowned industrial laboratories that conducted Nobel Prize-winning research. He argued that these companies saw the long-term benefit of investing in such research, and that is how they gained their competitive edge.

However, in recent years, publication surveys show that articles produced by industrial sources have declined precipitously. He closed his presentation by saying that there needs to be rethinking of the relationship between academia and industry.

Yamamoto discussed the history of the interfaces that developed in life sciences and medicine, focusing on four “flex points.” The first was the 1910 Flexnor Report, which brought academic standards and research to training in medicine, thus creating the first real interface between medicine and academia. The second was the 1946 creation of the National Institutes of Health peer review system, a product of the 1945 Vannevar Bush report to President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending the creation of the National Science Foundation. This, Yamamoto said, created the government-academia interface and has led to indelible contributions to medicine.

Third in Yamamoto’s list was the 1976 founding of Genentech, Inc., which took biomedical research and moved it into the industrial realm, marking the birth of the biotech industry and creating the academia-industry interface. Lastly, Yamamoto pointed to the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed academic institutions to own intellectual property that arose from their research, much of which was government-sponsored.

Yamamoto said that in the last quarter century we have seen an “astonishing” increase in our ability to describe complicated biological process and find the fields poised at an inflection point to move from describing to understanding these processes. He said that the ARISE II committee believes two forms of integration are necessary to move through this inflection point.

First, he said, is to integrate life sciences and medicine with engineering and physical sciences, which he described as making the life sciences more like traditional quantitative disciplines. The second is to better integrate across the full scope of the life sciences so there is a direct line from basic research focused on understanding specific cell mechanisms to efforts to diagnose, treat, and cure disease. Both of these integrative efforts, he concluded, require better interfaces between academia, government, and industry.

He discussed how, to this point, the distinctions between academia and industry, and basic and applied research have often been viewed as boundaries, not interfaces. He also said that pharmaceutical companies are “pulling back from in-house discovery” because the long timelines of basic research do not align well with the expectations of stockholders.

Yamamoto outlined several areas the committee is looking to for solutions. The first is tenure and promotion policies in academia, namely the possibility that higher value could be placed on collaborative and team investigations. The committee is also assessing how to better align the scientific workforce with areas of greatest need. He then discussed whether conflict of interest policies should be changed to acknowledge and manage conflicts rather than claiming to eliminate them, as the system currently does. Lastly, he said the committee is discussing whether universities could promote increased licensing and patenting of their intellectual property while protecting academic freedom.

David A. Kronig
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
dkronig@aip.org
301-209-3094