February’s announcement by the National Institutes of Health, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, and major pharmaceutical companies of an ambitious partnership to help accelerate the discovery of new diagnostics and drug treatments is a promising step forward for strengthening America’s scientific research enterprise. The partnership among government, universities, and industry is the cornerstone of research and innovation in this nation. However, securing a prosperous economic future in the face of increased global competition will require a more cooperative strategic working relationship among these three sectors than currently exists.
Many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle seem to agree. Yet this task is enormously challenging. It will require two things: (i) strong bipartisan agreement on the importance of U.S. science and technology (S&T) and the long-term investment in federally funded research, especially that carried out in our universities; and (ii) policy reform in all sectors, including changes in America’s federal S&T policy-making apparatus that today focuses on short-term political and economic considerations rather than on the nation’s future needs in a rapidly changing world. In short, we need a plan.
U.S. leadership in S&T is threatened by policies and policy-making mechanisms that were put in place during the Cold War, well before the onset of the information revolution and widespread globalization. This is not because U.S. presidents and Congressional leaders in recent decades have not tried. The problem is systemic, making it difficult to implement even the most basic reforms on issues ranging from removing needless regulatory barriers to government-university cooperation to raising the limits on H1-B visas and green cards to updating the Bayh-Dole legislation to aligning the missions of federal agencies and national laboratories to meet today’s challenges.
In fact, we argue that America has not had an effective national S&T plan for many decades, and that needs to change. Suppose we had one, what might it look like?
First, an effective national plan would include better coordination of efforts: enhanced federal interagency cooperation on S&T-related activities, including shared planning and funding; stronger partnerships between the government (federal and state), universities (public and private), and business and industry; reduced barriers to collaboration across sectors, e.g., government regulations and IP sharing; and greater synergy among non-government research societies and S&T policy organizations, working together to get a compelling message out to the public, while continuing to offer good advice to policy-makers in all sectors.
Second, an effective national plan would be strategic. America’s research system has served the nation well for more than 60 years and, at a fundamental level, continues to do so. Yet the rapid changes occurring in government, universities, the private sector, and the world at large require a more strategic approach to S&T policy, particularly with respect to research, including sustainable funding for research, student fellowships, modern instrumentation, and world-class facilities as well as policy changes to remove the barriers to international research cooperation.
Third, an effective national plan would be forward-thinking, taking the long view on S&T policy and R&D priorities and placing greater emphasis on basic research where the “breakthroughs” happen as well as on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at all levels. Achieving this goal would require that policy-makers in all sectors capitalize on abundant independent, expert, non-partisan advice on long-term S&T planning and policy.
To help bridge existing gaps in S&T policy and lay out some steps toward the notion of a national S&T plan, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences has convened leaders from government, industry, academia, and philanthropy to determine how the nation can improve policy-making and maintain America’s global leadership in areas related to science and technology, particularly the research enterprise. The Academy’s report, to be released later this year, will outline a series of steps for addressing current policy roadblocks as well as sustaining a national focus on long-term policy-making in science and technology.
Critical areas include the sustainability of the university research model, such as the fate of young investigators, the costs of regulatory compliance, and government-university-industry cost sharing; the need to promote more-efficient translation of federally funded innovations to the market; and the need to create long-term planning mechanisms in S&T policy, including strengthened government S&T advisory bodies and inter-agency coordination mechanisms.
Although many thoughtful and pragmatic solutions to these problems are offered by leading policy research centers, all too often these ideas are not translated into action. What is missing is a mechanism to keep these solutions up to date and in front of political and scientific leaders. Real progress will depend on the extent to which the public and private sectors can cooperate effectively in support of a coherent national roadmap to strengthen U.S. R&D, basic research in particular, and to drive American innovation throughout the 21st century. As the President observed in this year’s State of the Union address, “We know that the nation that goes all-in on innovation today will own the global economy tomorrow. This is an edge America cannot surrender.”