PCAST Issues Important Report on U.S. Research Enterprise

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Publication date: 
21 December 2012

“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.”