Successful Priority-Setting Initiatives

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Science  22 Jan 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5401, pp. 485
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5401.485

A common experience is the misperception of relative motion, like that feeling you're moving forward when the train next to you backs up. At the rate at which current economic developments and policy decisions are changing, one could easily believe that the supporters of increased investment in basic sciences are making progress. Economic gains in the stock markets and in the taxes generated from business productivity and high employment in the West have produced economic surpluses that were unimaginable as little as 1 year ago.

Although the failed tobacco settlement did not pay for investments in U.S. science and technology as proposed, domestic spending in these categories was nevertheless increased last year by dipping into the defense budget and the operating budgets of domestic agencies such as the national parks and air traffic control. These decisions seemed very much like commitments. However, those budget decisions are about to run headlong into a wall of obligations that have been neglected and about which decisions will soon be unavoidable. Should the defense budget be increased? Should domestic spending programs be tapped for the increased defense expenditures, as budget rules now permit? How will we fund Social Security and how will we protect health benefits provided under Medicare without major increases in payroll taxes? These competing domestic needs are at the top of a lengthy list that also includes education, crime, highways, and the growing economic inequality among our citizens despite substantial past investments in social policies.

Scientists are citizens of this larger community of problems as well. If investments in science and technology and the sweeping commitments to education that will be needed to maintain a technologically competent and intellectually motivated workforce are to be realized, is it not time for some broader consideration of our priorities for dealing with these problems? Setting National Priorities (at www.brookings.edu/press/review/rev_des.htm) provides excellent source material on the issues and offers some suggestions for their solution. However, such learned expositions miss their goal when those who must make the decisions and rank the needs are not among those who have done the analyses and offered the suggestions.

Moreover, government is not the only source of our investments in science. In developing products, industry already commits more to the final stages of research harvest. Increasingly, philanthropic foundations, mission-oriented charitable societies, and individual private philanthropists are making commitments to support science, and they need a basis for making decisions on what fields to invest in and which scientists should carry their investigative and training banners.

Could a nationwide, or even international, agreement be reached on long-term priorities? Within each such listing, could a shorter-term series of needs and opportunities be identified? Several agreements of this kind have indeed been successful; for example, the Foresight Project in New Zealand [see Science 280, 655 (1998)] and the roadmap strategy for long- and short-term planning that is being used effectively by the semiconductor community and others [see Science 280, 803 (1998)]. In their book Research Foresight: Priority-Setting in Science,* Martin and Irvine point to seven essential features of such strategies that have been successful in Japan, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and France: (i) agreement that planning is necessary, if only to expose the issues; (ii) agreement that consensus is necessary to move ahead; (iii) inclusion of decision-makers to grant authority and (iv) of experts to give legitimacy to the final decisions made; (v) an advance commitment to act on the findings; (vi) having the resources necessary to analyze trends and capacities and to plan, and eventually exploit, the recommendations; and (vii) disseminate the findings to those whose involvement and participation will be required. Clearly, it can be done.

  • *B. R. Martin and J. Irvine, Research Foresight: Priority-Setting in Science (Pinter, London, 1989).

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