Scientific Remedies

Experts agree that the U.S. is heading toward a potential crisis in research competitiveness -- and offer some solutions.
December 6, 2006

Science and technology underpin the modern American economy, but as a steady drumbeat of recent reports have suggested, experts fear that the current trajectory for the U.S. scientific enterprise could eventually undermine the country's competitive stance. Attempting to find solutions, the Brookings Institution brought together a handful of scholars Tuesday to suggest and discuss federal strategies to head off the problem.

Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot University Professor and the former president of Harvard University, concisely summed up the day’s concerns. The last century was the century of physics, and it was a century directed by America, he said. The 21st century will likely be defined by advances in the biomedical sciences.

“The question is,” he asked, “‘Will the United States be the leader?’ ”

Thomas Kalil, special assistant to the chancellor for science and technology at the University of California at Berkeley, proposed that the federal government provide prizes as an incentive to spur research. Kalil’s idea originates from a contest in 1919, when a New York hotel owner, Raymond Orteig, offered a $25,000 purse to the first person to fly nonstop from New York to Paris. While Charles Lindbergh ultimately succeeded in 1927, nine different teams spent more than $400,000 going after the money, helping to spawn the multibillion-dollar aviation industry.

Dangling prizes in front of innovators has benefits not found in the typical funding process. By offering a prize, government pays for success instead of rewarding a research proposal, as occurs with grants. Second, prizes can stimulate private investment by attracting entrepreneurs and corporate enthusiasts interested in capturing a trophy. Finally, there is nothing like a cash jackpot to stir public interest.

“I’m not saying that we don’t have to fund research, but we should look to prizes as a complement,” said Kalil. Drawbacks exist, however. Kalil noted that small companies and individual inventors face difficulty raising funds to pursue cash awards, and prizes can work only for narrowly tailored projects. A contest simply would not work, he said, for a highly complex project like discovering a Higgs boson particle.

But prizes can spur research in areas like space exploration. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration recently announced that it will sponsor competitions to invent technologies such as flexible astronaut gloves, and Kalil recommended that NASA create prizes for more ambitious contests such as building a lunar lander-rover. Kalil also suggested that prizes may be the way to spur innovations in African agriculture, vaccines for diseases that afflict the poor, energy policy and even learning technologies.

Researchers need to design learning software that is as interesting to students as video games, he argued. Kalil said that this policy shift would not require huge amounts of money. For instance, he recommended that NASA initially devote around $100 million of its $16.8 billion budget to contests.

Richard Freeman, professor of economics at Harvard, made a similar plea for targeted spending, focused instead on graduate research fellowships sponsored by the National Science Foundation. In the early 1960s, NSF funded about 1,000 graduate students in the Graduate Research Fellowship Program and three decades later, it sponsors the same number. Freeman said that the government needs to triple that number and increase the value of each fellowship from $30,000 to $40,000 annually.

Funding more graduate students would not solve all the problems in science, but Freeman said that the minimal cost ($375 million a year) would galvanize the younger generation to set the future agenda for science. “The point is that we would get a substantial response to this and all the good things would follow,” he said.


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