Allocating Money for Science

The National Research Council recently exercised its mandate to advise the government by producing a short but important science policy report, 'Allocating Federal Funds for Science and Technology.' The report outlines a broad vision for how the United States should foster its science and technology investment. Requested by the Senate Appropriations Committee and sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council, the report was generated by an 18-member committee representing an impressive spectrum of research, administrative, and policy expertise. The chair of the committee, Frank Press, PhD, a geophysicist at the Carnegie Institute, is Past President of the National Academy and was Science Advisor to President Carter. Psychology was represented by Baruch Fischhoff, PhD, from Carnegie Mellon University.

What does the report say?

Demand for a Comprehensive Budget.

The committee invoked a recommendation that has been made before: that the Executive branch construct an integrated federal science and technology budget (beyond what is currently done by the National Science and Technology Council), that Congress consider this aggregate budget as a whole before it is broken down for consideration by appropriations committees and subcommittees, and that priorities be set within this comprehensive budget.

Presently, an integrated federal budget exists only post hoc: It is the result of a process in which funds for different agencies and labs are allocated in widely disparate appropriations bills, with scant explicit attempt to assess the overall effects of expansions or cuts in one area on others.

Recognizing that resources are not sufficient for U.S. science and technology to be the best in all areas, the committee recommended that the federal science and technology budget allow the United States to perform sufficiently (at world-class levels) across all fields and to achieve preeminence in only a select few to be determined by expert advice and national priorities. To leverage resources, the committee recommended active international cooperation to share costs and tap the world's best science.

What Type of Research Should Be Conducted?

The committee strongly supported an increased focus on investigator-initiated, merit-reviewed, university-based research, citing the flexibility and quality control inherent to academic institutions. The role it recommended for national laboratories and institutions is to support mission-oriented science and technology development and to support work that is long-term, high-risk, or that requires facilities beyond the financial reach of industry and academia. Finally, the committee recommended that private sector science and technology development be encouraged by indirect means, such as favorable tax codes or patent laws. It should not be directly funded, except to develop new enabling technologies for which there are no other funding sources or to develop technology for government missions.

Who Should Conduct the Research?

The committee strongly endorsed funding people and projects rather than institutions.

How Should Projects Be Evaluated?

Although the committee acknowledged that there are benefits to a variety of evaluation approaches, it gave a thumbs-up endorsement to merit peer review, because it involves '... the use of criteria that include technical quality, the qualifications of the proposer, relevance and educational impact of the proposed project, and other factors pertaining to research goals rather than to political or other nonresearch considerations.'

How Should R&D Be Managed?

The committee recognized that it is important to spend taxpayers' money carefully and well, but urged government agencies to refrain from micro-management and overly burdensome accountability procedures.

The committee noted that its task was daunting, but that maintaining U.S. strength in science and technology requires tough decisions about reductions and reallocations for which there are no alternatives. What it offers is a set of guidelines for making these decisions. To judge them for yourself, order the report from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave, NW, Box 285, Washington, DC 20055;1-800-624-6242.

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