PCAST Examines Future of Scientific Research in U.S.

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Publication date: 
21 July 2011

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.