A Focused Approach to Society's Grand Challenges: Fundamental Research Linked to Well-Defined Societal Goals Is a Critical but Underused Tool of Science and Technology Policy

By Branscomb, Lewis | Issues in Science and Technology, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

A Focused Approach to Society's Grand Challenges: Fundamental Research Linked to Well-Defined Societal Goals Is a Critical but Underused Tool of Science and Technology Policy


Branscomb, Lewis, Issues in Science and Technology


The United States faces a number of "grand challenges": technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution. At or near the top of any list is the need to develop new energy sources that are clean, affordable, and reliable. The list also would include creating high-quality jobs for the nations population, finding cures for cancer, developing more effective ways of teaching and learning, identifying new ways to improve health and reduce the cost of care, improving the management of water resources, developing more nutritious foods and improving food safety, and speeding up the development of vaccines for deadly diseases, among others.

Many observers at many times have declared that such challenges are best solved by bringing science to bear on them. But how effective has this approach been? Regarding energy, for instance, the answer is, not very. Among the two most favored--and ineffective--tools that have been tried are appointing a White House "czar" to coordinate the fruitless technological efforts already in place and creating publicly funded technology demonstrations that are supposed to convince industry to adopt the technologies, even while evidence is lacking that they are affordable or effective.

Still, the Obama administration has declared its intent to try a new level of reliance on science to solve the energy mess. The administration has expressed its commitment to changing the nation from an energy economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable sources of energy. This transition is expected to benefit from a major investment in science, which must create the ideas on which radical new technologies rest. Such a government effort must also ensure that these technologies are affordable and will be exploited, under appropriate incentives, by a transformed energy industry.

On a broader level, the administration plans to harness science to achieve other public goods as well, as expressed in the newly enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Plus, the government is backing up this policy commitment with increased budgets for the 2010 fiscal year for research, as well as for educating students for an increasingly technological future.

Without doubt, these actions are valuable. Few critics would deny that improving schools, encouraging more U.S. students to take up science and engineering, and devoting more resources for research by the nation's best academic laboratories will lead to new science and some valuable innovations. They are critical inputs to the needed system of innovation that creates new industries.

But is this policy focus on science sufficient to the tasks at hand? I believe that two other policy elements are necessary if the grand challenges are to be met in a reasonable amount of time. The first element involves a new type of policy that is geared to promoting science that is more focused than pure research, yet more creative than most applied research. Advocates of this tool call it "Jeffersonian science." The second element involves a new set of policies that are tailored to moving the products of science into innovations and from there to new industries. This is the heart of the innovation challenge. Advocates of these tools call them research and innovation (R&I) policies, as contrasted with more conventional research and development (R&D) policies. Such R&I policies would cover institutions and organizations that finance and perform R&D; finance investments in technology-based startups and new ventures; attend to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies; and manage matters related to such issues as intellectual property, taxes, monetary functions, and trade.

Nevertheless, many members of the science community continue to try to persuade politicians that sufficient investments in basic science will, in due course, lead to discoveries that create inventions. In turn, the argument goes, these inventions will be snatched up by angel investors who create new companies that someday may become industries that solve the nations problems. …

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