In an era of innovation, the innovation process itself needs to be the subject of research and development. Federal policies that influence scientific and technological research and the commercialization of that research need to be continually re-examined and improved. Valuable sources of insight include international comparisons, the results of small-scale experiments, lessons from other sectors of the economy, and clear, data-based thinking.
One useful way to improve the effectiveness of research programs is by setting goals for those programs and then monitoring the ability of programs to achieve those goals. This was one of the aims of the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA), which was designed to encourage greater efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability in federal programs and spending. The act required federal agencies to set strategic goals for at least a 5-year period and then measure their success annually in meeting those goals.
For agencies that support research activities, implementing GPRA has presented many challenges.2 Applied-research programs, whether conducted by federal agencies or private companies, have desired outcomes that are directly related to agency or company missions. Evaluating such programs is therefore relatively straightforward. A series of milestones that should be achieved by particular times can be established, and periodic reporting can indicate progress toward those milestones.
But the usefulness of new basic research is inherently unpredictable. Though history abundantly demonstrates the tremendous value of basic research, the practical outcomes of such research can seldom be identified while the research is in progress. Furthermore, misuse of measurements for basic research could lead to strongly negative results. Measuring this research on the basis of short-term relevance, for example, could be very destructive to quality work.
For both basic and applied research, there are meaningful measures of quality, relevance to agency goals and intended users, and contributions to world leadership in the relevant fields. These measures can be regularly reported, and they represent a sound way to ensure that the country is getting a good return on its research investments. A full description of an agency’s goals and results should contain an evaluation of all research activities and their relevance to an agency’s mission.
Evaluating basic research requires substantial scientific or engineering knowledge. Evaluating applied research requires, in addition, the ability to