OK, let’s have a ‘Science Debate’ . . . but a full one

I’ve finally signed up as a supporter of Science Debate 2008, a few days after it didn’t take place, and not without some misgivings. Yes, it’s probably a good thing that the presidential candidates start talking about the role of science, technology and innovation in economic recovery (and in fact it’s a theme I’ve heard creep into Sen. Clinton’s speech in recent days).

But the Science Debate organization itself raises a few concerns. I can’t find it listed on Guidestar as as a charitable organization, and actually it bears the strong marks of an “astroturfing” operation put together by DC lobbyists for the major research universities. [UPDATE 8/9/08: ScienceDebate now says clearly that it is applying for charitable status. See their donation form. I still have some misgivings.] Please, prove me wrong in the comments if you will, but if you want to get the sense of how astroturf looks different from a venture motivated by the genuine joy in science, check out Prof. Brian Greene’s World Science Festival planned for here in New York later this spring. Both have impressive steering committees, but there’s a big, big difference in tone. Which do you think will be more effective at building public support in the long run?

It’s not that the organizers of Science Debate 2008 are wrong to focus some public attention on the reasons national governments in the industrialized nations fund scientific investigation, even in relatively hard times. These are well understood: above-average economic growth owes to innovation, and innovation looks to basic science, and the positive externalities of basic science are so strong that private industry will not itself fund it adequately.

And yet, these are hard times. And there’s something more than a little troublesome about one sector of the economy among the many dependent on public support presuming that its needs are so much more obvious and compelling than those of the others. Almost, er, elitist, one might say.

In the 1990s, times were fat in human biomedical research: thanks to an agreement between President Clinton and the oddly futurist if otherwise reactionary Speaker Newt Gingrich, the NIH budget doubled. If you were a medical dean, all you had to do to maintain “market share” for federal funding was add space to accommodate the extra postdocs and grad students, and the occasional new faculty hire. Now, those times are over. NIH is flat. All those people we drew into the graduate-degreed workforce are now competing with their mentors for a stagnant pool of grants, and the gnashing of teeth is heard in the lab. . . .

But was this unexpected, with a little thought about how the system worked and what the future might hold? In any case, now, to maintain market share, schools of medicine and of basic biomedical science must actually stay as good as their competitors, and to gain share they actually have to get better. Not so easy as a growing budget, is it? Ought they feel sorry for themselves, and ask for more, or instead look to their own productivity, especially so far as the promised impacts on health and economic vitality are concerned? Despite my basic sympathies for all forms of science and innovation, this is not an open-and-shut question for me.

And as for all other fields of science other than human health, the America COMPETES Act of last year — which built on years of largely correct but heavily self-serving studies from the National Academy and Council on Competitiveness — authorized and was supposed to usher in a comparable period of budget doubling for the National Science Foundation. As all science observers know, however, the 2008 sausage appropriation bill emerged from conference without the money: because it simply doesn’t exist, and because there are many competing and legitimate demands.

Yes, there’s an attempt now to supplement the NSF budget with amounts that would keep it on the doubling growth curve for at least the first year, and President Bush continues to ask for healthy growth in the 2009 budget, but does anyone now seriously believe that actual appropriations can keep up a doubling pace for nine more years, without solving at least some of our other problems first? In all honesty, times will not get any less tough in American physical science, despite the good works of our physicist matter/anti-matter (D/R) Congresspair Rush Holt and Vern Ehlers, who are co-chairing Science Debate 2008.

So, what should the candidates debate, when they do, if they do? What will distinguish them from a thousand other special-interest groups, many with equally worthy causes? How about asking some questions that cause the Science Debate constituency at least as much heartburn as rapture? Here are some suggestions, at least to get started?

  • What will you do to ensure that the recipients of all this requested new funding for science in scarce times use it wisely, and not according to business practices as usual?
  • Specifically, will you demand that any university receiving federal R&D funding take a proactive and forceful role in its regional economy, appointing a vice president for economic development, integrating all outreach, engagement, and economic-development initiatives under one powerful person with budget and authority?
  • What will you do to encourage, build and fund the commercialization infrastructure (pre-seed funds, entrepreneurs in residence, incubators, etc.) that allows discoveries based on federally financed science to be developed locally into vibrant startup companies, rather than licensed passively to large multinationals that extract value wherever they can, often in remote regions?
  • How will you work with state governments, which have been trying to accomplish precisely these things ever since about 1980, often rowing against the current set by federal agencies that don’t give a damn about federalism or local priorities? (Some of my former state-government tbed colleagues will remember our disastrous meeting with now-deceased Presidential Science Advisor Allan Bromley during the administration of President Bush (41). How about with private foundations interested in restoring entrepreneurial vibrancy to crushed manufacturing economies?
  • Will you decline to exempt private universities from federal expectations that they actively contribute to regional economic development, and not just sit back and collect royalties? I’m speaking of those institutions, particularly in the East, that believe they are in but not of their communities, that they are really global enterprises that just happen to be in Boston or New York of Philadelphia or Baltimore — except when they come to ask for public funding

You get the idea. Let’s have a debate, all right, but let’s make it full and tough. Let’s have the question-askers be neither journalists nor academics, but rather state and local economic-development officials and investors who know all too well the potential of technology-based economic development, measured against the actual sluggish, self-serving, and often regressive tendencies of the very largest institutions that now want more of our money.

Science, yes. Blind support, no. No automatic assumption that support for science per se leads automatically to entrepreneurial behavior and economic growth that benefits everyone, including the most distressed. That’s my platform and I’m sticking to it. Is there any bridge I haven’t burned? Feel free to comment.

  • Colleen Gibney April 24, 2008, 3:38 pm

    Good piece, David—you should consider developing it into an e-book for TBED stakeholders.

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