Science and Its Applications

Saturday, February 16, 2013
AAAS New Fellows Forum, Boston, MA

AAAS Fellows were instituted in the 1870s, to create a more prestigious category of "fellows" for members "professionally engaged in science" or those who "by their labors aided in advancing science."  That’s you!

Congratulations on your election:  You join a society of extraordinary scientists and scholars, the AAAS elite.  Many of you, quite appropriately will find this honor of particular significance, since it comes from your toughest judges – your colleagues and peers.

But more important than congratulating you, I want to thank you for pursuing a path less traveled.  Here in this hall this morning, and maybe even here in Boston, we might be lulled into thinking that all the world is on our page.  But we all know well that outside our labs and institutions, all the world is rarely on our page, and many consider scientists to come from a distant, inexplicable part of the universe.  

Each of you has experienced the exhilarating joy of discovery and understands deeply the importance – and unpredictability – of basic research.  Basic research has been the mechanism for understanding the vast realms around us – and within us.  A great and glorious pursuit.

But beyond elucidating the core principles of our universe, basic research serves a second, important purpose, as the foundation from which new technologies are built.  Curiosity-driven exploration is the first segment of the innovation pipeline that begins in research without any known application and ends in products delivered into the marketplace at competitive prices.

Now, while I would quite happily spend these few minutes or an hour, or even the week, describing the glories and triumphs of basic, curiosity-driven research, I want to, instead, focus on the application side of this dual service.  

I was encouraged by President Obama’s State Of The Union statement of continuing to invest in research.  Let’s hope and work toward making that statement a funding reality.   However, with the looming threat of sequestration taking a huge bite (or more like an entire meal) out of research budgets, I think it’s important to understand where College Street crosses Main Street and how America became a science and technology powerhouse.

The federal government provides about 60% of funding for basic research and universities carry out more than half of that research.  Industry contributes powerfully to our R&D enterprise, but it conducts less than 20% of basic research.  Industry’s role is development.  As a nation, we make massive investments in research, and the public benefit – in economic growth and in the quality of education and quality of life – returns on those investments many times over.   

This group likely doesn’t need another call to action in defense of research funding, but I believe it’s important to understand what’s at risk as the sequestration (again) threatens research budgets.

As I’ll describe shortly, after WWII the U.S. government decided to embark on a project of investing in R&D.  Those investments peaked at 2% of GDP in the mid-1960s.  They have fallen steadily since then, to less than .8% of GDP in 2000.  And in 2009, even with the significant addition of stimulus funding, federal R&D remained less than 1% of GDP.  A terrible trajectory on its own, but particularly terrible at a time when countries around the world race to increase research funding, while this nation risks the success of our research enterprise.  

Economics teaches us “input-output” theory:  if you cut a major input to growth – R&D – you affect the output – economic growth.  We are conducting a massive experiment of growth theory – in the exactly wrong direction.

In addition, low, falling and perhaps drastic cuts in research funding imperil the pioneering spirit of discovery and also imperil the economic health of the nation.

We can defend basic, curiosity-driven research as the physicist Robert Wilson did when asked how a particle accelerator would help national defense, he replied:  “It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. … all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about.  It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”

But we can also defend R&D funding for its value as the first step in the innovation pipeline.  While some may believe that the technologies we enjoy today, our smart phones, iPads and medical miracles, are purely products of the marketplace, the roots of those amazing technologies invariably trace back to government-funded basic research.  Simply put, research investments produce discoveries that drive job creation and economic growth.  

You likely know some of the recent history.  The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 transferred to universities and non-profit organizations the intellectual property rights to products of federally-funded basic research, enabling a more effective transition of basic research into applications.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) captured a snapshot of the economic impact of NIH funding over the period from 1996 to 2010 and found that:
    –  University and non-profit licensing supported as many as 3 million jobs
    –  Impact on U.S. GDP was as much as $385 billion; and
    –  In 2010 alone, academic and nonprofit research institutions spun out over 
650 new companies.

And those new companies have an outsized impact on jobs:  the Kaufman Foundation has reported that new companies are responsible for the great majority of new job creation – a pressing need as we continue our laborious climb out of the recent economic debacle.

The more distant history of tech transfer is a great American story.  From its founding in 1848, the AAAS embraced both science and its applications, choosing as its first president, William Redfield, a meteorologist and geologist who advanced our early understanding of the circular flow of hurricanes, and also promoted railway and steamship development.

In the first half of the 19th century, a small band of educational pioneers understood that the still-young nation needed a different kind of education to flourish.  West Point’s new curriculum in 1817 for the first time incorporated science to improve technology, and in 1824 Rensselaer was founded “for the purpose of instructing persons ... in the application of science to the common purposes of life.”  In short, tech transfer.  

MIT and other schools took up this theme, and the theme became a national movement with the passing of the Morrill Act in 1862, which established the Land Grant Colleges.

The Morrill Act, passed in the heat of the Civil War, gave grants of federal land to states.  By selling the land, the states would have funds to found or support schools of advanced education.  The Act prescribed the topics of instruction, agriculture and mechanic arts (today’s engineering), in order both to bolster agriculture production and to accelerate the industrialization of America.  

Not too surprising, in order to gain support for the Act in Congress, military training became another prescribed topic, establishing the precursor to ROTC.  The Morrill Act propelled the U.S. to become the global leader in both agricultural and industrial production.  It also made the U.S. the first to embrace mass higher education so that, unlike the rest of the world, we had the talent ready to embrace the emerging technologies.

The Land Grant colleges had a dual purpose:  to democratize education, making college accessible to anyone with the talent and ambition to pursue higher learning; and to equip a new generation of Americans with the skills to turn science into practical applications.  In essence, the Land Grant Colleges, along with the other new schools of the mid-19th century, were founded with tech transfer in their DNA.  The drive to applications called on the pioneering spirit of America, and still does today.

An added boost came from wartime investments in technology development -- during the Civil War, even more so in WWI, and massively in WWII.  The Radiation Laboratory at MIT, better known as the Rad Lab, included at its peak 4,000 scientists, engineers, linguists, economists and others developing the radar that proved to be a war-winning technology, the first global navigation system, LORAN, and also provided the enabling foundations for the modern electronics industry.  

WWII research investments advanced progress in medicine – surgery and antibiotics, in aircraft, in industry, as well as in weapons, including the atom bomb.  People with different academic backgrounds came together and produced ground-breaking science, as well as developing critically important applications brought to the point of field-readiness.

Vannevar Bush, the architect of much of WWII science, wrote the equation of adding federal research funding with brilliant people to yield high-value applications, and after the war, he propelled that wartime equation into peacetime practice.  

He responded to President Roosevelt’s request for a plan to continue to deliver on science and its applications in peacetime with his essay, “Science, the Endless Frontier.”  Key elements of his plan included continuing government funding of basic research and siting much of that research in universities, rather than government research institutions.  He also called for a competitive model for allocating funding:  merit-based peer review, to allow the best ideas to win. 

In parallel, he called for the further elaboration of the patent system and intellectual property protection; he called for enhanced science and technology education; and he spelled out the organization and action of his proposed federal funding agency, the National Science Foundation.

It was, in short, a full blueprint for the research enterprise that has fueled U.S. academic and economic growth post-WWII.  And, it enabled a mainstay of our innovation system – the federally-supported research university

As we all know now, it worked.  We developed an unprecedented education and research enterprise that sits at the heart of our economic progress.  Nobel economist Robert Solow has demonstrated that more than half of economic growth post-WWII is attributable to technology.

So, clearly, I’m an advocate for research that drives the development of technology, and of turning those wonderfully unexpected products of curiosity-driven research into applications.  Many of you have worked at the interface of tech transfer.   

Yet, we, as a community of scientists and scholars should consider how to drive the flow through the innovation pipeline faster.

Something that struck me as I made my unanticipated leap from the lab to university leadership was the omnipresent tension between theory and practice.  We see it in every discipline.  You’ve seen it too, I’m certain.

Rather than getting caught up in the theory/practice debate, our challenge is to foster both.  We must protect the “academic privilege” of curiosity-driven research, to preserve the essential process of discovery without a practical purpose.  Vannevar Bush believed, “Scientific progress on a broad front results from the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.  Freedom of inquiry must be preserved under any plan for Government support of science.”  And it must be preserved.

But I believe that it’s our responsibility to increase the rate of transfer.  Easy to say, hard to do.  I often describe the product of university research as a “basket of solutions” for a “basket of problems” that sits in the hands of industry or other practitioners.  Often your piece of a solution matches up with someone else’s piece of a solution down the hall or across town, and then together that matches up with someone else’s problem.

To foster both basic and applied research we need to increase discourse between them.  The AAAS’s new president, Phil Sharp – a great Nobel Prize scientist and a great entrepreneur – describes the most efficient mechanism for tech transfer as “two feet.”  Others advocate increasing the “bump rate” (encouraging people to run into one another).  Whatever the metaphor, new directions come from sharing ideas.

So why am I telling you this?  Because your election as Fellows of the AAAS identifies you as people who know the excitement of encountering a new idea, an unexpected insight.

Edwin Land, a local hero, scientist and founder of Polaroid, observed, “The great historic periods of spectacular human advance, within time spans of relatively few human generations, may have been periods in which society made possible the concentrated interplay of the separate contributions of creative individuals.”

I would ask you to help foster that concentrated interplay of creative individuals.

I hope your new honor may give you added impetus to let your interests wander a bit wider, to indulge even more generously the curiosity gene with which you are well endowed, and to enjoy the disruptive uncertainty of engaging other ways of thinking.  We need science, and we need to put science to work for our world, and you’re the ones who do it.   THANK YOU