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NSF: a mouse that roars science policy?

With only 3 percent of total federal research and development (R&D) dollars at its disposal, the National Science Foundation ranks as a minor player, financially, in the national R&D picture. But last week, an independent commission urged the National Science Board, which oversees NSF, to take the lead in promoting the development of a national science and technology policy. For years, federal officials have debated the need for an national technology policy but have not yet formulated one.

"We're calling for a stronger and more coherent policy, in which science and technology can contribute more strongly," says Robert W. Galvin, co-chair of the commission and an executive at Motorola, Inc., in Schaumburg, Ill. "The National Science Board should be facilitators of the dialogue to accomplish this goal."

Convened in August by the science board, the Special Commission on the Future of NSF also clarified NSF's role in promoting industrial competitiveness. "Technology is inescapably influenced the National Science Foundation does," says Galvin. "I do not see NSF trying to cure industry's problems." The report, "A Foundation for the 21st Century," blamed poor management practices by companies, not slow technology transfer, for the decline in U.S. competitiveness. It also noted that as defense industries become more consumer-oriented, they will rely even more on scientific advances.

For NSF to make the best of this transition, the commission suggests, it should involve more industry scientists on its advisory committees and staff, and it should seek more input from society in general when determining national research needs, allocating resources to research programs, and evaluating those programs. "There really is an emerging spirit of collaboration, an this collaborative spirit will draw us close together," Galvin told the science board when he introduced the report last week in Washington, D.C.

Also, just as many companies now depend on more specific measurements to assess productivity, NSF should rely more on rigorous, data-intensive analyses of its activities, says the report.

The group praised the agency for its key role in promoting science in the United States and attributed NSF's success to its broad scientific mandate, its support of peer-reviewed, individual grants and of science and math education, and its ability to link engineers, scientists, and academic institutions. However, it also called on NSF to pay more attention to "strategic" research goals and to become more effective in stimulating interdisciplinary research.

"The report confirms my original view that the environment for science and engineering is changing in many ways," says Walter E. Massey, director of NSF. The National Science Board will now consider this report - as well as ideas in 800 letters from scientists, professional organizations, and universities - to develop long-range plans for the agency, he adds.
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Title Annotation:National Science Foundation promotes development of science and technology policy
Author:Pennisi, Elizabeth
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 28, 1992
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