Open Letter on Innovation Urges Real Support for Basic Research


innovation signIn September of last year the American Academy of Arts & Sciences released a cry from the heart that called for the United States to pay more attention to sustaining basic research, especially in science and technology. The centerpiece of this effort was a report — Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream – that highlight salient points such as “the United States ranks 10th place among OECD nations in overall [research and development] investment relative to economic growth, and China is projected to outspend the United States in R&D less than 10 years from now.”

The project, which was chaired by a former head of Lockheed Martin (Norm Augustine) and a physicist who is also a senior fellow in Science and Technology Policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy (Neal F. Lane), did more than release a document. Members of the project committee, drawn from business, government and the academy, have been actively spreading the message: “There is a deficit between what America is investing and what it should be investing to remain competitive, not only in research but in innovation and job creation.”

Today, more than 250 universities and scholarly groups and the CEOs of 10 corporations released an open letter, titled “Innovation: An American Imperative,” which calls on policymakers to “heed the warnings” contained in Restoring the Foundation.

Signatories include a number of organizations familiar to social scientists, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Association of Universities, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the Coalition for National Science Funding, and the Task Force on American Innovation. Business leaders lending their name include the CEOs of John Deere, Merck, Novartis, Shell, Boeing and Microsoft. Among the businesses signing is SAGE, the parent of Social Science Space.

The original committee premised its work on the ideas that a strong economy is important to the welfare of the American people, and that the competitiveness needed to retain a strong economy in today’s high-tech environment requires innovation, and that the best way to ensure innovation is to conduct basic research – lots of it and across the science spectrum. “[P]athbreaking discoveries,” the authors wrote, “are most likely to come from basic research sustained over long periods of time, which is mainly funded by the federal government and carried out in the nation’s universities and national laboratories.”

The committee’s recommendations focus on three overarching objectives:

  • First, to secure America’s leadership in science and engineering research–especially basic research–by providing sustainable federal investments.
  • Second, to ensure that the American people receive the maximum benefit from federal investments in research.
  • Third, to regain America’s standing as an innovation leader by establishing a more robust national government-university-industry research partnership.

In that vein, the Innovation Imperative group urges the following for federal policymakers:

  • End sequestration’s deep cuts to federal investments in research and development
  • Make permanent a strengthened federal R&D tax credit
  • Improve student achievement in science, technology, engineering, mathematics
  • Reform U.S. visa policy
  • Streamline or eliminate costly and inefficient regulations
  • Reaffirm merit-based peer review
  • Stimulate further improvements in advanced manufacturing

This letter is being released even as the U.S. Senate is considering two major bills for funding the nation’s premiere basic research enterprise, the National Science Foundation. Both those bills, the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act and the Commerce, Justice and Science Appropriations Act, see politicians making decisions on what science to fund as opposed to the traditional process of letting NSF’s hand-picked experts make the call. While the politicians have cited “the national interest” in opting to reduce funding the geosciences and social sciences, academic associations have been well nigh universal in criticizing both the motives and the effects of such intervention.


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