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Problems with federal R&D priorities?

To address "increasingly urgent policy dilemmas and societal challenges" -- from homelessness and AIDS to declining economic competitiveness in global markets -- Congress must improve strategies for linking federally funded basic and applied research to national needs. Or so argues the Report of the Task Force on the Health of Research, released last month.

Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, convened the task force last year (SN: 5/25/91, p.324). Its mission: to probe widespread reports of stress in the federally funded research system and investigate how Congress might relieve that stress.

Increasingly, federal research investments are failing to deliver the dividends that Congress and the public have come to expect, Brown says. The problem reflects not waning research quality, he contends, but a growing divergence in the goals of those who have tended to set federal research agendas -- scientists -- and those who have paid for the research. While scientists have been aiming for a greater understanding of how the world functions, most taxpayers have supported these programs as a defense against military or economic aggression.

The task force found that Congress tends initially to base its research-funding decisions on the promise that a particular line of inquiry offers. The new report recommends that Congress now consider adding a performance review -- by independent auditors -- of programs it finances. Congress should also issue "a clear statutory mandate to redirect or terminate programs that are not making sufficient progress toward stated goals," the task force says. And it suggests that policymakers articulate research goals more clearly and centrally, from outside the parochialism of individual federal agencies, as the new FCCSET (Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering, and Technology) programs do.

Similar conclusions emerge from another research and development (R&D) analysis, this one contained in a 318-page report titled "Setting Domestic Priorities," released last month by the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Like Brown's task force, Linda R. Cohen of the University of California, Irvine, and Roger G. Noll of Stanford University found that federal R&D investments reflect "many uncoordinated decisions rather than a comprehensive policy" and are subject to little accountability, such as whether they are meeting objectives. Overall, Cohen and Noll argue, the main problem "is not how much [the United States] invests, but how it sets priorities and how it manages what it spends."

For instance, they note that while the United States spends about the same fraction of its gross national product on R&D as other industrial nations do, "nearly all of the [U.S.] R&D effort goes to defense, health, and energy." No major industrial competitor focuses as extensively on these areas, they say -- nor, probably, should the United States.

Noll and Cohen also explore a range of political and economic factors that could impede major reforms in federal R&D priority setting. For instance, killing programs that don't meet targeted objectives or embracing new technologies may render some labs, companies -- even entire industries -- instantly obsolete. Count on "losers" exerting political pressure to sustain these dying programs, Noll and Cohen say.

They also note that civilian technology "rarely" wins federal funding, largely because innovation occurs so slowly, its results are uncertain, and its ultimate beneficiaries have proved hard to predict. "Unless the United States overcomes its political resistance to supporting civilian R&D without a strong national security justification, the gap in civilian R&D between the United States and its principal international competitors is likely to widen," they conclude.
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Title Annotation:funding social projects
Publication:Science News
Date:Oct 10, 1992
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