Making the Case for Federal Support of R&D

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Science  12 Jun 1998:
Vol. 280, Issue 5370, pp. 1671
DOI: 10.1126/science.280.5370.1671a

President Clinton recognized from the start of his administration that balancing the budget was critical to the future of the nation. At the same time he recognized the need to invest in that future, which included making critical investments in research and development (R&D). The proposed fiscal year (FY) 1999 budget reflects his commitment to R&D, but maintaining that commitment will require support from the scientific community.

As I leave my position as director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), I would like to share with you how the scientific community might improve its role in helping to maintain the commitment to R&D by addressing the following questions:

How large a scientific enterprise does the United States need? Last fall hundreds of scientists sent us letters promoting an authorization bill that doubles the research budget but does not address how to fund this doubling. Nor did the bill explain why doubling the budget would produce the correct level of spending. Although not a doubling, the President's FY 1999 budget does provide for aggressive increases for R&D that are fully paid for within very tight funding constraints. Unfortunately, the follow-through by the scientific community has been disappointing. Wish lists do not fund programs—strong justifications, tough choices, good performance, and aggressive follow-through until enactment into law do.

How can we set priorities in the nation's R&D enterprise? If I were to judge from my discussions with university representatives, I would infer that the priority of the research enterprise is to recover indirect costs. I hope that this is not the case, but that the scientific community has something more important to say. We have heard much rhetoric on the importance of setting priorities, and yet we have seen little follow-through. If the scientific community remains silent, priorities will be set without its input, by outside circumstance, by earmarks, and by those outside of the R&D community.

How can we measure the success of our nation's research programs? We appreciate the difficulties of developing performance measures for science, where basic research often results in unpredictable discoveries. Nevertheless, research agencies, as with other federal agencies, must be accountable for how they spend federal dollars. We often hear the success stories that, although necessary, are not sufficient to justify our $70-billion-plus annual investment in R&D. We have to understand not only what new programs and scientific areas are being proposed, but also that they are being conducted in the most effective and efficient ways possible. We must maintain a world-class research enterprise with constrained resources. This can be accomplished through better planning and increased international collaboration in the construction of major scientific facilities and through improved methodologies that lower the cost of research.

How can we strengthen the government-university partnership? I have often heard what the federal government—and the budget—should do to “fix” the problems and stresses at universities, but I have seldom heard what universities and the scientific community are doing to promote and improve our long-standing partnership. For the partnership to continue productively, we must agree on the distinction between support, which connotes entitlement, and assistance, which implies that the federal government is willing to help. We must also emphasize the importance of the peer-review process, or risk simple earmarks that turn science into a high-tech version of pork-barrel politics.

How do we engage the American people in the excitement and wonder of science? The research community first has to clarify its message to the American people. Not every American will become a scientist, and most will not be interested in the arcane details that so excite the scientific community. Yet scientists should make a difference where they can, most importantly by improving the science taught at the K-12 levels. Also, if science is not communicated to policy-makers in a way that they can understand, it will not be supported in the long run.

Although there is general and broad support for investments in R&D, funding is not an entitlement. Annual funding must be justified and earned. The scientific community must learn to be more effective in explaining the scientific enterprise, how priorities are set, and how success is measured. As director of the OMB, I have enjoyed my discussions with the scientific community, and I hope that these discussions will continue with my successor. Together, we can make better decisions about investments in R&D.

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