Scientific Research Changes Direction
THE scientific community in the United States is entering a new era. Relevance to national defense, which has justified much of the strong federal support for scientific research since World War II, is losing its appeal.
The realities of the post-cold-war world demand "a new impetus and new rational for support of science," says Frank Press, president of the National Academy of Sciences.
Dr. Press says he is convinced that "commercial relevance will be an intrinsic feature of most science, if not a stated goal."
That doesn't mean astronomers will have dollar signs instead of stars in their eyes. But, he adds, "a fundamental feature of the [new] era ... will be the ascendancy of the research technologies - those technologies seeded in advance in fundamental research rather than refinements to the existing processes and products."
Biotechnology industries, where basic science flows quickly into products, exemplify this. Press calls the recent history of these industries "the 20th-century prologue to a 21st-century paradigm, where new knowledge will be the currency of successful industry."
Thomas Moss, dean of graduate studies and research at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, noted the change in thinking at a recent science-policy colloquium held by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Looking over the assemblage of academic, industrial, and government research administrators and their Washington lobbyists, he summed up their shared concern: "Is this our image for the future - science and technology as engines for economic competitiveness?"
Never before, he said, had he heard competitiveness mentioned so often as a justification for research, especially for the kind of basic science pursued in the academic "ivory tower."
In an interview, Press expanded on his vision of this new era: "I really believe what I said. I'm not talking about next year.... But it certainly is the time of the next generational change in the American [scientific] leadership."
Press does not foresee funding agencies sorting basic-research proposals according to their possible commercial potential. He believes that, given its unpredictability and proven productivity, basic science will be seen as worth supporting.
This will be an era, Press says, "in which the boundaries between basic and applied research will erode."
Even those star-gazing astronomers will have their commercial appeal.
"While individual astronomers are usually motivated by intellectual curiosity ... , they are also pioneering in the use of advanced sensors," Press says. "Astronomers are designing systems to acquire huge data bases that ... [are] accessible to large numbers of users. These activities have important commercial relevance."
SUCH new-found economic prominence cannot come too soon for America's academic scientists.
The research universities, where most of them work, have fallen on hard times. The recession has cut back gifts. The federal government is curtailing the amount of overhead costs they can load onto research grants.
Most important, federal research funding has leveled off and is likely to stay this way indefinitely.
This combined income shortfall has put even the most affluent research universities in a fiscal squeeze.
"I think every university is going through a period of self-examination," Press observes. He adds, "It's almost like zero-based budgeting - looking at everything they're doing and saying 'should we be doing it.' "
This means that universities that have overexpanded research capacity are thinking about cutting back. Not all universities can afford to pursue all fields. Many speakers at the AAAS meeting referred to this as a "market shakeout" that will force universities to focus more strongly on what each does best.
Yet those speakers all see the network of great research universities as the US's unique strength in this new era. As Press notes, no other country has a comparable resource.
Press emphasizes that "it would be an error of incalculable magnitude and a waste of the world's largest investment in fundamental research for the United States not to" capitalize on this resource.
Academic scientists are beginning to wake up to these realities and shed their traditional aloofness from industry. Press says that, as he goes around the campuses, "I think I sense that the trend that I describe is already in motion."
He adds: "I wouldn't ever tell them to do things that are impossible for them to do because I don't believe in it.... [This trend] is set. They may not express it as positively and optimistically as I do.
"But I see it in so many different ways - the industrial consortia, the industrial liaisons program, ... professors that go back and forth to industry."
That doesn't mean that academic scientists don't have misgivings. Thomas Moss reflected this concern when he wondered if embracing the justification of economic relevance will turn out to be a new Faustian bargain for scientists to replace the old one they had struck with national defense.