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10/30/2014 12:36:44

Future of Science and Innovation

A Panel Discussion about the Direction of Academic Science and Its Evolving Partnerships

On the evening of Thursday, October 23, Beckman Auditorium was host to a lively discussion on the future directions of academic science and its evolving relationship with government, industry, and private philanthropy. The discussion, "Science and the University-Government Partnership," was moderated by Robert J. Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, chair of the board of governors of Argonne National Laboratory, and member of the National Science Board, and included three distinguished panelists—Major General Charles F. Bolden, administrator of NASA; Subra Suresh, president of Carnegie Mellon University and former director of the National Science Foundation; and Ellen Williams (PhD '82), director-designate of the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPAE) and former chief scientist at British Petroleum.

The discussion was one of several events that marked the inauguration of Thomas F. Rosenbaum as Caltech's ninth president. In using the eve of his inauguration to reflect on the U.S. government's historical role funding basic research at universities, how that role has shifted, and the implications for institutions like Caltech, Rosenbaum signaled that the Institute's continuing ability to lead innovation is both a concern and a priority for his presidency. As he noted in his opening remarks, the discussion "occurs at a time when the model for national investment in science that came out of World War II is under both explicit and implicit reassessment. We hope to illuminate the issues that confront the practice of science, the future of national competitiveness, and the inspiration that scientific discovery provides."

Over the course of an hour, the panelists addressed some of the many questions raised by the shifting models of support for research science, including the stressors and opportunities that may impact the university-government partnership in the next decade and beyond; how to advance young scientists and future discoveries in light of the tight public environment for both education and research; and the role of international collaborations in science. Highlights of the conversation follow.

Robert J. Zimmer: I'd just begin by a very high-level, general question, and I might begin with Subra, to comment on what he sees as either those stresses or opportunities in fact that will … lead to some significant shifts over the next 10 to 15 years, and what that will mean for science in the United States.

Subra Suresh: Let me start with the stressors on the system first. I want to go back to the very founding of the National Science Foundation in 1950, based on Vannevar Bush's "Science the Endless Frontier" report … The report said that innovation necessarily depends on rigorous basic research and rigorous basic research is best done at universities and colleges, that not only train young minds but produce future leaders for academia, industry, and government. This basic research also leads to economic prosperity. That was the noncontroversial part. The controversial part was that it is the responsibility of the federal government to fund that basic research …

I think the problem we face now is that the long-term benefit of that funding is lost and the focus has shifted so much to the short-term returns on investment, and I think somehow trying to get that message across has been one of our biggest challenges … The good news is that there has been at least some recognition in some parts of Washington that universities serve as economic engines for the region … The contribution of universities is not just for creation of knowledge but transforming regions …

Charles F. Bolden: I spend a lot of time these days arguing on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue about the fact that NASA does basic research … That is stressor number one: trying to help people understand that if you don't spend something on fundamental research, sooner or later, you have nothing to feed into the operational research and development or into the other things that everybody wants right now. It is a problem that I think everyone has recognized for a number of decades, but it is not a problem that we seem to be doing anything about.

A good thing though is that NASA still, as an example, manages to find funds that we put into colleges and universities. We really depend heavily on colleges and universities.

I saw my friend Dr. Ed Stone earlier. Dr. Stone is the leader of the team of the first anything that left our solar system. That's a big deal. That is a tremendous deal to us. And right now we have a spacecraft that is called Pluto New Horizons. When it reaches the planet—I call Pluto a planet. Forgive me, for those of you who are in the small planet business … But when Pluto New Horizons gets there for the first time in humankind, the United States will have some type of instrument, some type of sensor, looking at every single planet in our solar system, and thanks to Ed Stone and his team, one set of instruments that has left the solar system and is in interplanetary space … At some point, we have to realize what we get for the small amount of money we put into colleges and universities where this basic research is really done.

Ellen Williams: We have going on right now basic research, applied research, and development research, and the economy is constantly reaping the benefits of the applied and the developmental research … If you think about our science and technology enterprise, you can think of it as a portfolio where all three aspects have to be going on simultaneously, and we could imagine stopping the basic research and just harvesting the developments and the applications, and 30 years hence, really being in a sorry state …


Zimmer: Public funding … which educates a vast percentage of our students … has gone down in real terms by 30 percent over the last decade. So with tight funding [comes] the question of how do you get enough funding into the hands of young people so that their careers can go forward? How do you create a structure where our immigration policies are going to bring in this enormous flow of talented people that have fueled the development of the United States for so long?

Suresh: If you look at college graduation, 4.4 percent of all the college graduates in the U.S. have an engineering degree. Four point four percent. And that's been declining steadily. So if only 4.4 percent of the students, of the graduates, are engineers, how can we be innovation leader on a global scale? That comes back to immigration …

One third of the Nobel laureates had their first degree abroad. One third of the members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences had their first degree abroad. How many faculty at Caltech had their first degree abroad? So I think it is the combination of portfolios that has made the U.S. successful.

Bolden: Why does NASA care about immigration reform? I do because I need a thriving workforce … I need a very strong STEM workforce and I can only do that if I can start in the lower grades and nurture them and take them through college and grad school and then retain them …

Williams: A third point on this topic is that whereas 20 years ago we could assume that every one of those foreign students who came here and got their education would want to stay, now we are seeing that China, India, these countries are going all out to bring their most talented students back … We can't just assume that we're going to have the same economic boost that we've been having this whole time and have that last forever …

We have been talking about university–government interaction, but there is a third leg of industry. And both in terms of our science and technology having economic impact and in terms of having valuable and attractive positions to excite young people about STEM fields requires us to have a strong and dynamic industrial base in the United States.


Zimmer: When you have this environment of scarcity on top of the increased regulatory environment, which I think is sort of impossible to deny we're in, how do you insure that there is an ongoing array of support for fresh ideas, for new things, for things that have the potential to be transforming?

Williams: In any spectrum of technology investment, we really need to make sure that we have the steady performers of known delivery but also a portfolio of risky investments …

Both DARPA and ARPA-E are predicated on really trying to drive that early, that risky part of the portfolio forward, and so they both look at making very focused, relatively short-term investments in a high-risk technology … I think DARPA and now ARPA-E, which is still relatively young, are doing a great job of driving that kind of innovation but that is not enough by itself. It also has to be built into the overall portfolio. And especially we need to continue to support a lot of that at universities.

Suresh: One of the arguments I heard at NSF repeatedly from Congress was where is the Sputnik moment? How do you galvanize the next generation of young people? … Of course, that is true, that galvanized an entire generation, but we put man on the moon before we put wheels on a suitcase and having wheels on a suitcase is a very useful invention on a day-to-day basis. Both are important … The job of an agency like NSF is to create innovation, of all flavors and sizes and scales, so that we all benefit from it …

When the federal government created the SBIR program—Small Business Innovation Research—Congress did not ask the Department of Commerce to do it. They did not ask DOD to do it. They did not ask NIST to do it. They did not ask NIH to do it. They asked NSF to create an SBIR program. It was the first agency to create SBIR. And now Congress mandates that two and a half percent of the $7.2 billion budget be set aside for small business. Grants of the order of $25,000, $50,000 helped create Qualcomm, Symantec, and scores of other companies … [that] attention given to different types of investments within the broad portfolio of basic research is what created a lot of wonderful innovations …


Zimmer: Subra you made global contact, global engagement a priority at NSF. Want to share your thinking about what drove you to that?

Suresh: One of the constraints that all federal agencies have, not just in the U.S. but around the world, is we cannot send U.S. taxpayer money abroad. Likewise foreign taxpayers cannot send their money here for research purposes. But despite that, I think there are so many opportunities for us to leverage and collaborate. So if you take for example the U.S. Antarctica program, which is run through the National Science Foundation. We have 51 countries that have signed the U.S.-Antarctica treaty and we work together in some of the most difficult circumstances, including at South Pole… When normal diplomatic channels don't work, science becomes the only way to communicate with assumed or real adversities. And so there is a lot of opportunity to engage.

Williams: Not only are we contributing economically but we also can look forward on a global scale to that being the place where our markets will be. If we want to have the ability to constantly demonstrate how science and technology are contributing to the U.S. economy, to jobs, to the health of our society, we have to have the ability to have markets and the markets for our new technologies are going to be largely overseas …

Bolden: Giving you one example, since this crowd will know this: Curiosity. Until Curiosity landed on Mars, a little bit more than two years ago, there had been one nation, one nation in the world that had successfully landed something on another planet, well Mars anyway … I think there were 15 nations that have investigations on Curiosity. There are five nations other than the United States that [have] instruments on Curiosity … On that evening when Curiosity landed on the surface of Mars, there were five nations that were sticking their chest out because they were on the surface of Mars … We don't mind sharing—at least I don't—and that was really, really, really important. I think that was probably as important as anything else about Curiosity … it took a number of other nations into a place that they had never ever been, and probably never would have been able to be.


At the conclusion of the evening, the panelists also took some questions from the floor, including from Caltech president emeritus David Baltimore, Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology and winner of a 1975 Nobel Prize for his work in virology.

David Baltimore: I have two questions, only because you probably don't want to answer the first one. The elephant in the room that we haven't heard about is the U.S. Congress. The U.S. Congress appropriates the money that allows all these wonderful things to be done that you've been talking about and certainly in the area that I know best, which is health research, there is about a 25 percent decrease from peak in the buying power of the money being provided by the U.S. Congress in that area and I think it goes across the board. So … is there a way to engage the U.S. Congress in understanding the wonderful things that you have all said, so that we can regain the momentum that we had over so many years for the funding of research?

Bolden: Every day, I see that we are making incremental movement with the Congress and the administration … There are two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and both of those ends think their idea is the best thing since sliced bread, and both are wrong. And both of those ends need to understand more that the only way that we are going to do things that we do in this country so well, is that, at some point, we reach compromise. I'm trying to reach compromises with my committees right now, particularly my science committee, on science … People like me just have to keep sticking your nose in there and trying to educate them bit by bit. We let astronauts talk to them from the International Space Station. We go into their communities and we try to show them where science is making a difference in the lives of their people, and they can't deny that. And so it is incremental advancement.

What was your second question?

Baltimore: I'm not going to ask it, I'll let other people. The second question was only in case you couldn't answer the first one.

Written by Kathy Svitil