Now comes the hard part: correctly implementing science funding

Now comes the hard part: correctly implementing science funding
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The proposed United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which the Senate recently passed with strong bipartisan support, aims to address the toughest future challenges in science and technology research and development. As with most legislation, the act’s progress in Congress so far has been hard won, and there are still more miles to travel before it becomes law. Some of the truly hard work, however, will be neither in crafting the legislation nor in the lab, but in its management and implementation, once the act gets final approval.

The United States Innovation and Competition Act, as of this writing, proposes more than $200 billion in new federal research and development (R&D) spending between 2022 and 2026, with an emphasis on bringing scientific knowledge into applications benefitting the country as a whole. That’s welcome support for the nation’s science and technology enterprise, and it includes new medical treatments and communications technologies. If implemented carelessly, however, even large science and technology funding increases might not produce beneficial results for science or society.

Why? First, allocating research funding means neither immediate spending nor gains. Government-funded research grants involve an application, selection and award process of about nine months to a year, followed by a project period of six months to three years. Even if federal funds become available in early 2022, which is probably the earliest we can expect at this point, project results will not become apparent until around mid-2023, unless there is substantial revision to existing award procedures. While some ambitious and superstar projects can emerge, sometimes quickly generating either scientific breakthroughs and licensing revenues for recipient institutions and licensing partners, these are the exceptions. The odds are that we will only see incremental outcomes by 2026. Dashboards, public-facing progress reports, and simple expectation setting are among the tools that government agencies can use to explain this situation to the public.

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Second, research management involves substantial overhead costs. These are fully justified and reasonable, as in any business — the expenses associated with administrative staff and building maintenance, for example. At current rates, overhead will likely account for around 40 percent of total costs, covering both federal agencies and recipient expenses.

Recipients such as universities also typically need to match about 25 percent of the total cost with their own money. The current system, with limited overhead funding (plus prohibitions on reimbursement for innovation-building actions such as patenting costs), tends to favor large, well-funded, and well-connected elite institutions over smaller regional colleges, Historic Black Colleges Universities, and Minority Serving Institutions. The administration should understand this situation and consider updating funding rules. It would also do well to allocate more funding to administrative costs for less-elite but aspirational universities, or other administrative reforms that allow less elite universities to apply for more solicitations.

Third, today’s emerging technologies are often predictions, and predictions are frequently wrong. It is risky to attempt to stick too closely to any defined list of emerging technological areas for priority funding. Such ossification could hamper the USICA’s effectiveness, even in the next five years. Technology as a whole moves quickly even while individual R&D projects might not. There is no perfect balance between open solicitations and specific research missions. However, the best approach would recognize any named technologies as suggestions that should evolve as R&D evolves. It would also allow for continuous revisions based on the actual applications submitted by researchers, reviewers and the overall evolution of technologies.

Fourth, with more than 70 percent of global R&D now occurring outside of the U.S. (in contrast to about 30 percent in 1960), federal agencies and the administration should ensure that American researchers and institutions can engage with international research networks and knowledge. Such an approach would increase U.S. R&D competitive advantage beyond immediate returns on investment and towards longer-term value capture (the ability to commercialize innovations). Funding programs should encourage and allow mechanisms of financial support for collaborations with allied countries, from informal exchanges and visits to joint centers and shared infrastructure with trusted allies.

Fifth, it is also important to consider what works in other countries to design programs and overall research funding goals with any increases in support for R&D. Among many international examples worth considering here are the close collaborations among companies, government agencies, and universities in information and communications research in countries such as Korea and Taiwan, the industry-sponsored doctorates in Germany and the closely-connected R&D networks in nations such Israel and Finland.

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China’s rapid growth into an R&D superpower is also relevant in this regard. The administration needs to keep a close eye on the actions and outcomes of the Chinese government vis-à-vis R&D, and consider similar actions that have worked, such as large-scale coordination to develop advanced technologies and bring together different economic sectors. At the same time, all U.S. programs must maintain long standing democratic traditions, including respect for academic freedom and the independence of universities and companies from government authority.

Finally, while all federal allocations indirectly benefit economic development, it is important that agencies don’t simply fund for the sake of funding. Projects should be selected and evaluated based on several criteria, among them: research merit, commercialization potential and societal benefit, including to disadvantaged communities and regions. Evaluations should vary according to diverse types of research carried out at different categories of institutions.

All of the above points, among many, can be carried out by the administration as a whole and by individual agencies and programs after legislation is passed. The day-to-day roles of managing and oversight of research and its funding will not generate headlines to the level of legislation going through Congress. But it is just as important to the outcomes of the science that taxpayers will be funding.

Eion Lys is coordinator of the BRG Institute’s Global Innovation and National Interests project, which brings together prominent experts to urge the U.S. and other countries to reshape global collaborations in science and technology. The BRG Institute was founded by Berkeley Research Group, LLC.