For over sixty years, the Federal Government has assumed the major funding responsibilities for basic research and higher education to promote science and technology in the US. The blueprint for government support of R&D was laid out in 1945 by presidential science advisor Vannevar Bush in his seminal report, Science The Endless Frontier. In the report he wrote that "The Government should accept new responsibilities for promoting the flow of new scientific knowledge and the development of scientific talent in our youth." His recommendations led to the creation of the National Science Foundation a few years later.
Ever since, we have looked to key Washington institutions - the National Science Foundation, as well as the Departments of Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Commerce and others, - as having the lead responsibility for funding advanced research. This is particularly true when it comes to Grand Challenge problems, that is, problems that are both very important to the nation and very difficult, and thus require breakthroughs from multiple groups across multiple disciplines.
But, I wonder if something is changing in the funding model for fundamental research and higher education. Over the last few months, I participated in a few meetings where similar questions keep coming up: can we continue to look to the federal government to help organize and fund major important national initiatives? We are not so sure any more. Even beyond the fact that research and education have not been high priorities in the present administration, perhaps something more profound is going on.
The post-World War II R&D blueprint advocated by Vannevar Bush, was generally focused on government support of science and engineering research aimed primarily at the defense sector. While this research also resulted in huge benefits to the private sector, - e.g., the Internet, supercomputing, civilian airplanes, - the funding for these projects was originally justified by national security and cold war oriented considerations.
But, the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, signaling the end of the cold war. And as we know, a historical transition is underway towards a global, knowledge-based economy whose dynamics are very different from those of the past sixty years.
The national problems in need of research and talent are very different as well. So are the underlying technologies. In the past, new technologies were generally developed to solve big problems in defense, science and engineering, and then trickled down and were embraced by the private sector and consumers. Think of the transistor, computers and the Internet, for example. The opposite is the case now. The most advanced new technologies are usually now developed in the private sector and first commercialized in consumer products and services. Subsequently, they trickle up to benefit the military, as well as big science and engineering projects.
There is general agreement that energy and the environment, and health care delivery are among the most important Grand Challenges facing the US and the world in general over the next decades. The federal government has been supporting energy research, largely because the Department of Energy has long been charged with that task. But, while just about everyone agrees that health care issues are among the most important and complex facing the nation, little funding for research and education has been forthcoming from the Department of Health and Human Services.
How about jobs and the economy? There is an ongoing debate whether the US can continue to create well paying jobs, or whether such jobs will largely be outsourced to countries with lower labor costs, or will be taken over by the influx of immigrants coming to the US who are willing to work for less pay. Demagogues in politics and the media are busy blaming China and India one day, illegal Mexican immigrants the next.
On the other hand, many of us have been working hard to promote increased investments in innovation, - including education, infrastructure and research, - which will lead to many more good jobs, as has been the case throughout history. The biggest opportunity for good, new jobs lies with higher end services and know-how, a very large segment of the US economy, and the one where new technologies and innovation can bring the highest payoffs in productivity. This is why IBM has been strongly advocating the creation of new programs like Services Sciences which aim to significantly improve the productivity, skills and pay of services-based jobs.
In February of 2006 the White House announced the American Competitiveness Initiative to increase investments in research and development, strengthen education, foster innovation and encourage entrepreneurship. But unfortunately, even though both the administration and Congress agreed on its importance, no funds were allocated to support its recommendations. Washington had other more pressing priorities.
Perhaps many of the pressing issues in the 21st Century - health care delivery, economic competitiveness, innovation, jobs, education, - are presently beyond the federal government's ability to tackle seriously. Other large countries are better able to address these issues at a national level - the UK, Brazil and China among others. But our structure is somehow different. We must continue to fight the good battle, especially given the ongoing presidential campaign, and hope that we can convince future administrations and members of Congress to evolve their priorities. But while we do this, we must also look for alternative ways of addressing these pressing problems facing the country.
What are alternative sources of funding in the US for these important new areas, which are quite different from the pressing issues of 1945 that Vannevar Bush had in mind when he wrote Science The Endless Frontier? Let's start with government. Perhaps areas like health care, economic development and advances in education are more the province of state and local governments given the size of our country, where different regions compete with each other to attract private sector investments and jobs.
California, for example, is making its own investments to promote stem cell research and regenerative medicine to benefit the state. New York state has been making major investments in nanotechnology. And, North Carolina has established the Renaissance Computing Institute (RENCI) to address multidisciplinary problems that will spur innovation and economic growth in the state. We can expect additional such state and local initiatives
The private sector is also doing more. At MIT, the Deshpande Center, - established in 2002 to increase the impact of MIT technologies in the marketplace, - funds novel-early state research and connects MIT's innovators to the business community. It was founded with an initial donation by Desh Deshpande, co-founder of Sycamore Networks, and his wife. It depends on the financial and professional support of MIT alumni, entrepreneurs and investors. Another example is BP, which pledged $500M to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) to conduct research in clean, sustainable energy sources. EBI is a partnership between BP, UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, and the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. Finally, IBM has extensive University Relations programs around the world that support basic research, curriculum innovation and educational assistance in selected areas, such as services sciences, information-based medicine and advanced supercomputing.
Innovation and talent are the critical ingredients for leadership in the knowledge economy. Any country that aims to attain a strong position in innovation and talent must seriously invest in research and education. This is what the US did after 1945, and it is a major reason that we won the cold war and achieved such a leading economic position in the world.
There are now many new opportunities amidst an intense, global competitive environment. The stakes are high. There is a lot to do and everyone must do their part. Perhaps state and local governments, the private sector and academia cannot rely on the federal government to the extent that they did in the past. But, given the highly important and complex challenges ahead, and the extensive resources required, US leadership in the knowledge economy will continue to require the serious contributions of the federal government. Let's hope that this is a top priority for our new administration.