Report urges US to spend more money on R, but not D

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The US government should support more basic research at universities, rationalize its own laboratories, and avoid supporting technology development, according to a study by business leaders and academics.

The study, ‘America's Basic Research’, was conducted by the Committee for Economic Development (CED), an industry-backed think-tank. It argues that government support for basic research is critically important to US industry, but that technology development ought to be paid for by industrial corporations.

The report applauds the performance of the research universities but singles out the laboratories of the Department of Energy for criticism. They “have not acted forcefully to eliminate work in areas no longer relevant to their missions, nor to expose themselves to merit-based peer-review processes,” the report claims.

But William Beeman, director of economic studies at CED, admits that the report's authors did not consult the energy department about these criticisms. Department officials argue that considerable progress has been made since similar criticisms were voiced in a celebrated 1995 report from a panel chaired by Robert Galvin, former chairman of the Motorola electronics corporation. “We were essentially endorsing the views of others who have looked at the laboratories,” Beeman admits.

He adds that the study's main finding is that government support for science, and not technology, matters to the panel members. The panel started by looking broadly at science and technology, he says, but ended up concentrating on basic research because that was what mattered to the industrialists on the panel.

“They are not concerned about support for technology development,” Beeman says. “They reject the argument that it is needed to ensure international competitiveness — and most academics reject that too.”

These conclusions were immediately contested by Senator Jay Rockefeller (Democrat, West Virginia), an advocate of technology programmes, whom CED asked to speak at its report's launch. “I remain convinced that these programmes fill a very clear void that industry would not fill on its own,” he said.

The CED report condemns the widespread congressional practice of ‘earmarking’ research money for projects at specified locations. It also calls for guidelines to ensure that relationships with industry do not damage the “primary basic research mission” of universities.

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Macilwain, C. Report urges US to spend more money on R, but not D. Nature 393, 502 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/31052

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