The political maneuvering and theater are well underway as the U.S. Congress debates the merits of various proposals to stimulate the economy. The U.S. House of Representatives has passed H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, and the Nelson/Collins (Senators Ben Nelson and Susan Collins) adjustments to S. 336 will likely come to the floor of the U.S. Senate for a vote in a few days. If the modified bill is approved by the Senate, we will await the negotiations that follow in conference.
Support for scientific research is a small fraction of the stimulus plan, and the House and Senate plans differ in some marked ways. ASTRA has a handy comparison of the two proposals with respect to research investment.
If you haven't seen legislative sausage made before, it is important to understand the process. After each legislative branch passes its version of a bill, a conference committee reconciles the differences, and the compromise must then be approved (again) by both branches. It is a competitive and often messy rugby scrum. Hence, we do not yet know what may emerge in support of scientific research and evelopment.
Steve Ballmer on Science
Microsoft's CEO, Steve Ballmer, recently spoke to the U.S. House Democratic Caucus Retreat. Although you can read the complete speech, I would like to highlight a few excerpts that emphasize Microsoft's strong support for innovation and the importance of continued investment in basic research. In his speech, Steve noted
… America really has to return to growth that's built on innovation and productivity, rather than leverage and private debt. That must happen.
He went on to say,
We need to pursue breakthroughs over the coming years in green technology, alternative energy, bioengineering, parallel computing, quantum computing. Without greater government investment in the basic research, there is a danger that important advances will happen in other countries. This is truly I think not only an issue of competitiveness, but also in a sense of national security. Companies like ours and others can do our fair share in terms of funding of basic research, but government needs to take the lead.
I could not agree more wholeheartedly.
Microsoft Policy Blog
On the subject of Microsoft and policy, the company recently launched a policy blog (Microsoft on the Issues), including support for research. A few weeks ago, I penned an entry for the Microsoft policy blog on the federal stimulus plan and scientific innovation. In addition to noting the critical importance of innovation to fuel the economy, I observed that we should treat the current crisis and any new research funds as an opportunity to rethink the way we approach university research and public/private partnerships:
Beyond critically needed funding, the bill gives government, academia and industry a chance to rethink research partnerships and policies in ways that will harness the benefits of scientific innovation for the good of the entire nation. …
We now have the opportunity to further streamline our nation's research infrastructure, particularly in U.S. research universities. …
By rethinking public-private sector partnerships, and refining processes for acquiring and deploying information technology, we can increase research efficiency and catalyze new discoveries while reducing costs for both universities and the federal government.
The potential influx of research funds from the stimulus package creates a great opportunity for research innovation. However, these are perilous times, and we should not (by default) assume that "business as usual" is the best approach to accelerating research. It may indeed be the best approach, but we should face the issues squarely and thoughtfully.
What is the best way to apply information technology to science and engineering research? How can we best advance computing research itself? How can we retain our research strengths while also addressing the rising cost of higher education? What can we learn from new and effective approaches elsewhere? How can we continue to compete effectively and efficiently? As Spiderman says, "With great power, comes great responsibility."
As always, I welcome your thoughts and ideas.