Can We Save America’s R&D System? A Future Tense Event.

For more than 50 years, America’s R&D system has remained fundamentally unchanged, according to the researchers, policymakers, and journalists who spoke at Monday’s Future Tense event, “How To Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise … From Tight Budgets, Primitive Myths, and the Shadow of Albert Einstein.” Held at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., How To Save America’s Knowledge Enterprise featured incisive critiques of the aging system that is incapable of helping us solve looming problems in medicine, energy, and business.

In opening remarks, Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of Arizona State University’s Consortium of Science, Policy, and Outcomes, noted that our current research enterprise is built on several assumptions: that the more money we put in, the more results we’ll accrue; that scientists should only be accountable to one another, via peer review; and that knowledge will always help. But these assumptions are deeply misguided: For instance, as we’ve learned more about climate change, we’ve seen only more carbon dioxide emissions, so knowledge isn’t by itself a solution to a problem.

By turns, the afternoon’s conversation discussed the problems faced and perpetuated by universities (both in carrying out research and in educating students), business, and government (as both funder and as researcher).

In the day’s first panel, Stephen Trachtenberg, president emeritus of George Washington University, acknowledged that traditional universities are under threat—and aren’t responding appropriately. Even as for-profit schools, flawed though they may be, demonstrate new models for educating students, the old guard is creating more traditional lecture halls and sticking with a two-semester system. (Faculty members, he quipped, are always in favor of progress but not so fond of change.) A further flaw in the current educational system, moderator Deborah Blum argued, is that science instruction is set up in such a way as to alienate those not interested in a STEM career. This hurts the public’s ability to understand and take part in vital discourse about science, technology, and priorities. One side effect of this, according Andy Revkin, author of the New York Times blog DotEarth and a senior fellow at Pace University, is that the public often fails to understand that argument is vital to the scientific process—and that causes misunderstanding.

Later in the day, Arizona State University President Michael Crow doubled down on Blum, Revkin, and Trachtenberg’s critiques of the traditional university. “Universities surrendered … their ability to design their own futures to acquire the steady flow of resources through which they promised to solve all problems,” he said. Research universities may produce great work, but there is a high degree of redundancy—look at all the generic “chemistry” departments. A better system, according to Crow, would be for universities to focus on outcomes and create their own specialties, like Yale’s Center for Green Chemistry and Green Engineering.   

In a panel on energy, the environment, and government, Margaret Davidson of NOAA, Michael Holland of the Department of Energy, and Jeff Marqusee of the Department of Defense talked with NAF’s Lisa Margonelli about “innovating in the belly of the beast.” And if it is a beast, it is a slow-moving one: Davidson described “fed life” as traveling along a straight road, “observing the yield signs.” Energy is a particularly tricky space for government agencies: The Defense Department, for instance, is often successful in solving defense-related technological problems because it is in the end user, said Marqusee. But that’s not the case with energy tech. Holland added that even if a new technology does solve problems, if no one can build a business around it, one that is sustainable without a federal subsidy, private enterprise won’t think it’s a worthy investment—and so would be difficult to scale up.

Addressing the business side, New America Foundation’s Michael Lind, Arizona State’s Jonathan Koppell, author Jon Gertner, and Argonne National Laboratory Director Eric Isaacs were tasked with discussing how the economy is affected by our research enterprise—specifically, how new ideas generate jobs. But Lind argued that innovation’s goal is not to create employment. It is to increase productivity, which both destroys and creates jobs.

But over the last several years, previous hubs of private innovation, like Bell Labs (where Isaacs worked earlier in his career, and which Gertner wrote about in his recent book The Idea Factory), have turned away from projects with “long-term horizons,” as Isaacs put it. This change puts further pressure on universities and government to focus on game-changing innovations 20 or 30 years down the road.

All of this may seem bleak. But Sarewitz, the intellectual architect of the day, emphasized that the event’s goal was to stimulate conversation, not fix a nearly 60-year-old system in just one day. To keep up with the ongoing dialogue, read the Future Tense channel on Slate.

Watch the webcast on the New America Foundation’s website.