“The United States is in the midst of a profound reorganization of how research is done, where it is done, who does it, and how its results find their way to the marketplace. This confluence of circumstances threatens the Nation’s world-leading position in innovation and technology and the benefits it brings.” So warns an important new report entitled “Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise”released on November 30 by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.
Synthesizing other reports on this topic, the 124-page document, approximately one year in the making, offers a roadmap for policymakers, universities, and industry. Responding to domestic and global changes in the support and conduct of basic research and early applied research, the report identifies five “Key Opportunities”:
“The Nation has the opportunity to maintain its world-leading position in R&D investment, structured as a mutually supporting partnership among industry, the Federal Government, universities, and other governmental and private entities.
“The Federal Government has the opportunity to enhance its role as the enduring foundational investor in basic and early applied research in the United States. It can adopt policies that are most consistent with that role. Federal policy can seek to foster a sustainable R&D enterprise in which, when research is deemed worth supporting, it is supported for success.
“Federal agencies have the opportunity to grow portfolios that more strategically support a mix of evolutionary vs. revolutionary research; disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary work; and project-based vs. people-based awards.
“There is the opportunity for government to create additional policy encouragements and incentives for industry to invest in research, both on its own and in new partnerships with universities and the National Laboratories.
“Research universities have the opportunity to strengthen and enhance their additional role as hubs of the innovation ecosystem. While maintaining the intellectual depth of their foundations in basic research, they can change their educational programs to better prepare their graduates to work in today’s world. They can become more proactive in transferring research results into the private sector.”
In presenting these opportunities, the report reviews the U.S. research enterprise, identifies changes and projects trends, and presents a series of actions. Seven of these actions were characterized as “the more important ones,” and are as follows:
“PCAST recommends reaffirming the President’s goal that total R&D expenditures should achieve and sustain a level of 3 percent of GDP. Congressional authorization committees should take ownership of pieces of that goal, with the Executive Branch and Congress establishing policies to enhance private industry’s major share.
“Recognizing the inherent political difficulty, PCAST nevertheless urges Congress and the Executive Branch to find one or more mechanisms for increasing the stability and predictability of Federal research funding, including funding for research infrastructure and facilities. Possibilities include a cross-agency multiyear program and financial plan akin to Department of Defense’s (DoD) Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) or closer coupling of multiyear authorizations to actual appropriations for R&D.
“The Research and Experimentation Tax Credit (usually called the R&D tax credit) needs to be made permanent. An increase in the rate of the alternative simplified credit from 14 percent to 20 percent would not be excessive. The credit also needs to be made more useful to small and medium enterprises that are R&D intensive by instituting any or all of (1) refundable tax credits, (2) transferable tax credits, or (3) modifications in the definition of net operating loss to give advantage to R&D expenditures.
“Regulatory and policy reform regarding universities is needed and should be spearheaded by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Building on efforts already initiated by the Administration, regulations and policies which do not add value or enhance accountability should be eliminated. There is a remarkable consensus among stakeholders inside and outside government about how to proceed, and significant progress is within reach.
“Each agency should have a strategic plan that explicitly addresses the different kinds of research activities that can contribute to its mission, specifically addressing the axes of evolutionary vs. revolutionary research, disciplinary vs. interdisciplinary work, and project-based vs. people-based awards. The elements of such plans should be explicitly supported by different kinds of merit review mechanisms. “The quality of undergraduate STEM education is not what it needs to be. Universities have the opportunity to share and adopt best practices, including teaching methods that have been empirically validated. Undergraduate STEM majors should have the opportunity to experience the creation of new knowledge through authentic research experiences. Improvements in undergraduate STEM education will involve the engagement of leaders across academia, disciplinary societies, foundations, and private industry, along with local, state, and Federal governments. We endorse the recommendations of PCAST’s recent ‘Engage to Excel’ report.
“We need to attract and retain, both for universities and industry, the world’s best researchers and students from abroad. Federal policies must support these goals by, for example, giving STEM graduates from accredited U.S. universities a fast-tracked, long-term visa, increasing the number of H-1B visas, and/or allowing existing visas to cover an employee’s spouse and children.”
At a briefing on the report, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren reiterated the Obama Administration’s commitment to reinvigorating the nation’s R&D enterprise, declaring “the President talks about this all the time.” The Administration views the R&D enterprise as foundational to a vibrant economy, Holdren said, emphasizing “not just jobs, but good jobs.” National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh praised the PCAST report as being “extremely important” and “exhaustive and insightful.”
In an accompanying letter to the President, Holdren and PCAST Co-Chair Eric Lander wrote:
“This report comes at a critical time for the United States. The Nation once led the world in investments in research and development (R&D) as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), but more recently, the United States has been investing less in R&D than other leading and emerging nations invest. Moreover, U.S. industry has been shifting its investments toward applied R&D, narrowing the support for basic and early-stage applied research, which is crucial to transforming innovation. Without adequate support for such research, the United States risks losing its leadership in invention and discovery -- the driving force behind the new industries and jobs that have propelled the U.S. economy over the past century.”