THE BLOG

Transformational Science and the U.S. Economy

08/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

President Barack Obama has wisely made scientific research a federal priority in his early funding decisions, including $21.5 billion for research and development in the economic stimulus package and significantly increasing science funding in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2010. The challenge now is to maximize the potential for truly transformational research -- the kind that has fueled U.S. scientific and technological advances, as well as economic growth, in the past. Unfortunately, American scientific research is becoming more conservative, just when we need it to be more innovative.

Science advances in two fundamental ways, both valuable in their own right: incrementally -- with new projects building upon the results of previous studies; and dramatically -- with the application of radically different approaches or interpretations resulting in the creation of new paradigms or new scientific fields. It's the latter approach that transforms science, creates new industries, and redefines economies.

It's the latter approach that should be a growing priority for federal research and for private-sector collaborators. Instead, there is increasing concern in the scientific community that incremental research is too much the priority, that U.S. science funding has become too conservative and too risk-averse.

A 2007 report by the National Academies, entitled "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," called on the United States to "sustain and strengthen the nation's traditional commitment to long-term basic research that has the potential to be transformational..." The report went on to say: "The United States faces an enormous challenge (internationally) because of the disparity it faces in labor costs. Science and technology provide the opportunity to overcome that disparity by creating scientists and engineers with the ability to create entire new industries -- much as has been done in the past."

A front-page article in The New York Times last month, entitled "Playing It Safe in Cancer Research," lamented the fact that "the fight against cancer is going slower than most had hoped... One major impediment, scientists agree, is the grant system itself. It has become a sort of jobs program, a way to keep research laboratories going year after year with the understanding that the focus will be on small projects unlikely to take significant steps toward curing cancer."

The problem is not a lack of commitment. The problem is that transformational science involves risk -- the risk of failure as well as success.

With funding historically scarce, there has been a reluctance to use available resources for projects that might fail to produce any benefits at all. Unfortunately, that risk-aversion also confines us to only incremental advances and to an economy less likely to lead the world.

With the increased funding provided by the Obama Administration, there is an opportunity to reverse that course and fund the bold research that has made our nation great. Doing so will require a new approach to requesting and reviewing proposals -- one that recognizes the importance of transcending the boundaries of traditional scientific research to create new realms of study.

As science has become more complex, there has been a tendency for scientific inquiry to become increasingly segmented within designated disciplinary cones of knowledge. But it's when scientists from different disciplines come together, combining areas of expertise in new ways and challenging each other to contemplate new paradigms, that breakthroughs become more likely.

A recently conducted Global CEO Study by IBM took a comprehensive look at innovation and identified collaboration as a significant catalyst. It noted, however, that collaboration is "theoretically easy" but "practically hard to do." It requires serious intent and discipline.

A National Science Board report recommends a new way of both structuring requests for proposals and reviewing them. It suggests enrolling three or four scientists to work with proposers through dialogue to both vet and refine potential proposals. These scientists would be senior people representing different disciplines. Their involvement would not eliminate the peer review process, but it would insert an emphasis on transformational research into the funding process from the outset.

Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the foundation that I head, has taken a different and critically important approach to advancing transformational research. We recently announced a major new research initiative called Scialog® -- a multi-year grant program designed to accelerate the work of 21st-century science by funding individuals or multi-disciplinary teams of scientists to pursue transformational research, in collaboration and dialog with their fellow grantees.

The initial Scialog, which will focus on the conversion of sunlight directly into usable forms of energy, will fund grants of $100,000 for individual researchers and $250,000 for qualifying teams of researchers, for a total of $3.2 million. Information on the application process, which is open to scientists at any U.S. college or university, is available at www.rescorp.org.

Encouraging intellectual risk-taking and dialog among scientists from different disciplinary backgrounds is crucial to ensuring U.S. leadership in ground-breaking research in years to come. Private foundations such as RCSA and several others can play an important role in the process, but we cannot do it alone. This must be a high priority for the federal government, as it determines how best to use its increased science funding.

I applaud the Obama Administration for providing that funding and thereby taking the first critical step in repositioning the United States as a leader in scientific innovation, and I urge the Administration to take the crucial second step and work with federal funding agencies to evolve the mechanisms necessary to identify and fund truly transformational research.

James M. Gentile, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Research Corporation for Science Advancement, America's second-oldest foundation (www.rescorp.org).