On Thursday afternoon in Washington, D.C., Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV (D-West Virginia) had a question. “How do we encourage young people to stay loyal to STEM?” he asked, staring at a witness sitting before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which he heads.
“We try to keep the doors open, inviting them in,” answered the witness, Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American’s editor-in-chief.
Rockefeller was concerned about sustaining the nation’s scientific workforce while Democrats and Republicans argue about how much federal money should go towards those workers and workers-to-be, as well as the research that they do. “America is in some distress right now,” he said, noting that many politicians want to cut funding to the research institutions that, in his view, were key to the country’s economic success. The budget battles of 2013, which hampered research agencies, were recent signs of this division. Thursday’s hearing was an early Senate attempt to discuss new funding levels for the America COMPETES Act, a 2007 law intended to increase U.S. spending on science.
There was no sign of partisan fighting during the hearing, when senators and speakers all voiced support for science. (Nobody discussed dollar amounts that could be tied to that support.) The link between research and national economic success got enthusiastic support from DiChristina and the other three witnesses in the U.S. Capitol hearing room: Vinton G. Cerf, computer scientist and one of the fathers of the Internet; Neal F. Lane, former director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (who has warned against Congressional attempts to cut research); and Stephen E. Fienberg, professor of statistics and social science at Carnegie Mellon University.
“Government support for basic and applied research is crucial,” said Cerf, noting that his initial build-out of a small network was based on a theory about information processing, not online bill payments or shoe shopping. “It took us ten years for the Internet to reach operational status.” And the Internet builders failed four times before succeeding, he added, emphasizing that basic science always involved failure and demands for instant success produce only incremental advances, because they are low-risk, not breakthrough technologies.
“Our own track record proves that steady federal funding leads to success,” said DiChristina. “U.S. federal funding was key to nearly 90 percent of almost 100 top innovations from 1971 to 2006 identified by R&D Magazine.”
She also noted that basic research inspires public interest in research, returning to Rockefeller’s question about ways to support a science workforce. “Thousands of Scientific American‘s own volunteers cataloged more than 100,000 whale calls in two months–equal to two years of lab work,” she said.
But it is difficult to figure out whether the federal government is getting a good bang for its research bucks. When asked about ways to assess this, Fienberg, the statistician, said there are “an astonishing lack of tools” to measure and evaluate the value of scientific performance. There are a few output measures like patents and published papers, he said, but those are fairly narrow. Metrics that attempt to capture the value that basic research has for society “were not ready for prime time,” he said. “It is not high quality data.” How to develop those needed tools? Once again, said Feinberg, the solution is basic research.
You can see and hear the testimony by clicking on this video player.