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Panel: Federal Science Cuts Hurt U.S. Competitiveness

Capitol Building (A. Kotok)

(A. Kotok)

9 July 2014. A panel of research executives from 10 universities in the U.S. told of the harmful impact of Federal spending cuts on science in the past few years, which the panelists said reduces the country’s ability to compete in world markets. The roundtable discussion at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was put on by the Science Coalition, a group representing some 50 top research universities in the U.S. and Association of American Universities.

Several panel members told of the effects of the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration that in 2013 imposed immediate reductions of 5 to 8 percent on discretionary domestic budgets, and annual spending caps through 2021. Sandra Brown, vice-chancellor for research at University of California in San Diego noted that the cuts are falling heavier on students and junior researchers in university labs who are turning to other careers. Brown called the cuts “an incalculable long-term consequence for the United States in human capital, losing our edge in that way.”

Panelists pointed out the effects of the cuts tend to be more long-term and complex rather than immediate. Robert Clark, senior v.p. for research at University of Rochester said the conduct of research requires continuous flow of resources, and that even if funds are restored, the harm can be permanent when staff members leave. “Once you close the program,” said Clark, “even if the funding reappears, you’ve lost the intellectual capital, the talent in the lab. You’ve lost the ability to quickly respond to do the work.”

The panel members highlighted the effects of what they call the “innovation deficit” — the gap between current science spending levels and those needed to keep up with other countries — on the larger economy. Caroline Witacre, Ohio State’s vice-president for research, described the pipeline connecting basic research with applied and translation studies, leading to commercialization of research in the marketplace. Harvard’s vice-provost for research Richard McCullough, however, cautioned against what he called “first-strike science” that looks for immediate economic payoffs from the investment in science. Sometimes, said McCullough, the economic effects take 30 to 50 years to materialize.

Most panelists spoke favorably about the connection between research on their campuses and its commercialization through technology transfer. Some of the participants described more proactive alliances with industry, rather than the traditional-patent-and-licensing process. Dawn Bonnell, vice-provost for Research at University of Pennsylvania outlined the university’s agreement with the pharmaceutical company Novartis and its South Bank campus that aims to attract technology-based businesses.

University at Buffalo’s Alexander Cartwright described New York State’s involvement with the university in promoting economic development in the region. Cartwright said New York Governor Cuomo established a “Buffalo Billion” program that aims to turn the area’s old rust belt industrial base into a more knowledge-based economy, with the university at its core.

In response to a question by Science and Enterprise about the potential conflict between industrial alliances and keeping junior scientists in academic labs, Rochester’s Clark called it instead “a healthy trend,” noting that there was room for both academic science and industry collaborations in their labs. Penn’s Bonnell added that “as long as you keep the core of science healthy,” there’s nothing wrong with some junior scientists going off to industry.

Despite the contributions of industry and foundations, said the panel members, there’s no substitute for a long-term commitment by Federal science agencies, and some warned that other countries will be more than happy to pick up the slack. Robert Bernhard, vice president for research at University of Notre Dame, described how his campus built an underground accelerator for nuclear physics research, and was well into the design phase, almost to the point of construction, when the sequestration hit in 2013.

“That whole project was put on the shelf, and we hope it start again, but there are no guarantees that it will,” said Bernhard. He added that the university was soon contacted by the Chinese government, and “there was the potential at least that a foreign government would take advantage of all the design work put into the project.” He said the university is continuing the project on a small scale hoping the U.S. government will get back to its original funding.

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