It is no secret that these are straitened and difficult times for basic research in the United States. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), federal funding for research, development, and facilities has declined from 1.23 percent of gross domestic product in fiscal year 1976 to an estimated 0.75 percent in the President's proposed 2015 budget. (Detailed data can be found on the AAAS web site.)
Today, we are struggling to sustain commitments to international scientific and engineering collaborations, and we are being forced to choose between operating budgets for existing, highly valued instruments and construction of innovative new ones. Concurrently, the probability of highly rated, peer reviewed proposals being funded is at or near historic lows, and an increasing number of post-doctoral associates in the basic sciences are struggling to find jobs in their disciplines. In short, it often feels as if we have only jingling money (coins), when the price of entry to the future requires crinkling money (bills).
A Science of Science
Just before I joined the U.S. President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) in 2005, the late Jack Marburger, then White House Science Advisor and Head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), was excoriated by some when he posed the following question in a Science editorial ("Wanted: Better Benchmarks," Science, 308:1087):
How much should a nation spend on science? What kind of science? How much from private versus public sectors? Does demand for funding by potential science performers imply a shortage of funding or a surfeit of performers? These and related science policy questions tend to be asked and answered today in a highly visible advocacy context that makes assumptions that are deserving of closer scrutiny. A new "science of science policy" is emerging, and it may offer more compelling guidance for policy decisions and for more credible advocacy.
Like many other scientists, my instinctive and emotional reaction at the time was, "There are so many deep and important unanswered questions. This is Vannevar Bush's endless frontier! Of course, we need to invest more." Our insatiable quest to know and understand is a deep and abiding part of the human experience. As the astronomer, Edwin Hubble, wisely noted, the urge to understand is older than history itself.
On further reflection, Marburger's was and is a thoughtful policy question, one that requires an equally thoughtful and measured response, based on unassailable, quantitative data, not just scientific passion. Though our inability to conduct controlled experiments in science policy poses obvious challenges, econometrics and meta-analysis offer opportunities for quantitative insight. After all, that's what we scientists do – test hypotheses using rigorously captured and analyzed data.
This realization, as well as the 2008 economic downturn, motivated the U.S. STAR METRICS initiative. Jointly led by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF) and OSTP, and involving the Department of Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as well as a large fraction of the leading U.S. research universities, STAR METRICS is developing a common data infrastructure to analyze and document the outcomes of scientific investment.
Within the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), the coordinating group for the Big Ten universities (which includes the University of Iowa) plus the University of Chicago, the UMETRICS initiative is using the STAR METRICS infrastructure to understand the economic impact of research, study workforce effects and implications, and assess investment strategies. In addition, it will provide normative data for communicating the results of research to policymakers, legislators and other stakeholders. Like my other colleagues in the CIC, I have committed the University to active sharing of our institutional data on research investments and expenditures and to a rigorous, comparative analysis and assessment.
Building the Future
As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, "Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." I believe we must expand federal investment in basic research. In a knowledge-driven, global economy, research and innovation are crucial to long-term economic growth and national security. The facts and the data support this, as does our shared passion to continuing exploring the endless frontier.