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--> Chapter 2 Research and the Federal Government Results of Federal Investment in Research The nation benefits from its investment in federal research in four major ways: knowledge advancement, knowledge application, human capital development, and mission advancement. It is important that all four of these be considered when evaluating the federal investment in research. Knowledge advancement lays the basis of our understanding of nature, which can later be built on for practical outcomes. Furthermore, it leads to better awareness and understanding of the world and universe around us and our place therein, as was the case when the Hubble telescope began transmitting pictures from the farthest reaches of space. Knowledge application is capitalizing on research to produce economic or societal benefits. In some cases, new research discoveries have led to new categories of industry, such as the fast-growing industries that have emerged from research in information technology and biotechnology. In other cases, society reaps the benefits of research in the form of public-health improvements, a sound defense, or a cleaner environment. Human capital development is a key outcome of the research process that is often overlooked. The ability of the nation to respond to societal needs is related directly to the human skills required to address particular problems. The federal government supports, directly through grants, loans, or fellowships or indirectly through campus research, the people who are educated in the nation's undergraduate and graduate education system and who enter professions in all sectors of society. Government and industry
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--> both support continuing education for scientists and engineers who want to sharpen their skills and acquire new ones. These people constitute the best mechanism for transferring knowledge from teachers and researchers in higher education to business, government, education, and other institutions. A key aspect of a student's educational experience is working with researchers who are supported by the federal government; alternatively, graduate and postdoctoral researchers receive fellowship funds directly via the research that they conduct under the guidance of a mentor. The outcome of this process is a new generation of knowledgeable people capable of addressing societal problems. Our federal laboratories also train personnel who can contribute to agency missions and to private-sector activity. Finally, the nation benefits as agencies strive to meet their objectives. Mission advancement is an outcome that is specific to particular mission agencies. Each agency has a particular mission that is linked to societal objectives, such as improving the environment, developing new forms of energy, probing the universe, developing new technologies, improving the health of our people, and providing for the national defense. And each agency funds research—both basic and applied—that is intended to accomplish its particular mission and thus achieve societal goals. The results can be as varied as discovering a new planet, reducing the cost of energy, and developing techniques of warfare that require fewer personnel. Goals of Federal Investment in Research Given the variety of research supported by the federal government and the outcomes of its investment, what are the appropriate goals for agencies that support research? In its 1993 report Science, Technology, and the Federal Government: National Goals for a New Era, COSEPUP discussed this issue and made the following recommendation:
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--> The United States Should be Among the World Leaders in All Major Fields of Science. COSEPUP based that recommendation on several observations. First, it is impossible to predict the ultimate practical outcomes of scientific research. For example, basic research on electromagnetism in the 19th century led to the development of modern communication in the 20th century; research in quantum physics 5 decades ago, followed by research in solid-state physics, led to the transistor and semiconductor electronics; and studies of unusual enzymes in bacteria led to recombinant-DNA technology and then to the modern biotechnology industry. None of those outcomes was directly expected by those who performed the basic research. Today, COSEPUP would extend that recommendation to include basic research in engineering. Second, and in the same vein, it is important to perform sound research for which applications are not yet known. The motivation of researchers who conduct basic research, primarily in universities, might or might not be the desire to develop new applications; many researchers are motivated primarily by the desire to discover and to understand the basic workings of nature. But founders who understand the workings of the research process know that investments in excellent research in important fields of science and engineering have, in the aggregate, enormous payoffs in terms of practical outcomes. Finally, the United States has risen to a position of global prominence because of numerous factors, including natural resources, political stability, economic freedom, and strength in science and engineering. Strength in science and engineering can and must continue to contribute to U.S. leadership. Being among the leaders in each field of science and engineering means that U.S. scientists and engineers can understand, participate in, and capitalize on the expansion of the frontiers of human knowledge.
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--> COSEPUP made a second, complementary recommendation for U.S. science policy: The United States Should Maintain Clear Leadership in Selected Fields of Science. Again, COSEPUP would amend that to include engineering research. The selection of fields for clear world leadership should be informed by scientific and engineering input but in the end should generally rest on societal judgment, not a scientific judgment. It is a judgment that money spent to obtain clear leadership will give a large societal return. That return could be in providing industry leadership (as in molecular biology) or in a rapid advance in our ability to deal with diseases, or in a contribution to a better environment—whatever it is that our society values and in which clear world leadership would make a difference. The fields in which clear leadership is a goal should be defined by government policy-makers in close collaboration with interested groups, including especially the generators and users of science and technology. Policy-makers should be fully informed of the comparative assessments of the U.S. position in scientific fields (by international benchmarking). Choosing fields in which the United States should maintain clear leadership is a different kind of process from deciding on the most promising directions for research in a given field of science or engineering.
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