Dr. Neal Lane


Panel Discussion
Federal Priorities: Optimizing R&D Budget Resources

California and The Future of American Innovation
Challenges for Universities, Industry, and National Laboratories

San Diego, California

February 24, 1997

Let me thank the Council, the GUIRR, and UCSD for bringing us together today. It is a pleasure and an honor to be part of such distinguished company. I must admit however that following Erich Bloch and Congressman George Brown in any discussion is always intimidating. Forgive me in advance if my remarks echo much of what has already been said. It was HG Wells who wrote: "After people have repeated a phrase a great number of times, they begin to realize it has meaning and may even be true."

When I spoke at the AAAS meeting in Seattle a few weeks ago, I posed the question of whether science is a stepchild or a superstar in the view of our society today. I chose this provocative phrasing to make a point that is directly relevant to today's gathering. Our science and engineering enterprise is neither a peripheral stepchild to what happens in the nation, nor is it an almighty and all powerful superstar in our nation's success and prosperity. Rather, it is something else -- a significant and integral enabler of what America's future will bring. Can't do all things with it but can't do anything without it. This view I believe underscores the central points in the Council's report about the importance of R&D partnerships -- which I should add is no accident.

This morning, I want to expand briefly on this subject. All kinds of dynamic and innovative cooperative ventures are emerging here in California and throughout the nation. These are often experimental and high-risk activities, and they are the kinds of activities that the Administration's R&D budget priorities seek to foster and promote.

To get a sense of how partnerships today are appearing in often unexpected areas, let's rewind a few weeks to the announcement of this year's Academy Award nominees. NSF is not known for being tuned into pop culture, but this year is different.

A film we co-funded -- the IMAX production Cosmic Voyage -- was nominated in the Documentary Short Subject category. The San Diego Supercomputer Center was a central player in the film's production, as were other centers and researchers at several universities working through the cosmology Grand Challenge Consortium. They teamed up with Motorola and the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum to produce this remarkable work.

If you haven't seen the film, I encourage you to do so. It carries you from the primordial soup of the big bang through the births of stars and galaxies. You even get to ride along a strand of DNA. It is truly awe-inspiring, and it also illustrates how fundamental research proceeds hand in hand with the development of new technologies. The visualization technologies that brought the cosmology simulations to the giant IMAX screen gave researchers a view of their data they had never seen.

In addition, projecting the colliding and coalescing of galaxies onto film was no easy task. An NSF supported-team at the Illinois supercomputer center developed a tool they call the "virtual director." It's a headset-based system that responds to voice commands to create a visual path through three-dimensional visualizations of data. I doubt the virtual director will ever replace Steven Spielberg in the real director's chair, but Hollywood studios are already lining up to test it out.

This is just one very visible and prominent example of a story we have heard and seen told again and again. It's a story we could also tell about medical imaging systems, new environmental technologies like bioremediation, and the emergence of the World Wide Web. Advances in fundamental science and engineering spur technological progress, just as new technologies open new frontiers for research. We are increasingly aware that investments in science and technology are inseparable from job creation and economic growth.

Nowhere is this more apparent than here in California. The most recent economic indicators assembled by the California Department of Finance speak directly to this point. The new jobs being created come under headings like electronic components, instruments, and multimedia and communications software. It should be no surprise that these were among the areas highlighted in the Council's report. All of them have deep roots and strong ties to the state's network of universities and national laboratories -- an asset base that is without peer anywhere on the globe.

The work of top economists like Edwin Mansfield testifies to the value of this asset base. Mansfield's recent work has focused on links between academic research and innovation in industry. He has found that government support lays the foundation for successful industry-university collaborations. Academic research that attracts industry support is most often an extension of work supported by public sources. This strongly reinforces my own conviction that industry sources would in all likelihood not replace government funding in the event of cutbacks at the Federal level.

As Erich Bloch and others have already noted, we are now immersed in a crucial period of transition for our national science and technology enterprise in general-and for industry/university cooperation in particular. Over the last two decades, we have seen partnerships between academe and industry grow from virtually nothing into a bountiful landscape of innovative endeavors.

In the current environment, nothing would be more dangerous than to be satisfied with this success. Even with the growth we've seen over the last fifteen-plus years, industry support for academic R&D remains a small portion of the total for academic R&D, and it constitutes an even smaller portion of industry's total R&D portfolio.

For this reason, the R&D priorities outlined in the President's 1998 budget aim to give cooperative activities an extra push and take them to a new level. For starters, there is strong emphasis on academic research generally. This is reflected in a bottom line increase for academic R&D of nearly $300 million.

The budget also supports a range of enhanced investments in areas of great mutual interest to government, universities, and industry.

We all know this is not a year for major expansions on the budget front. The constraints on discretionary spending remain brutally tight as we work toward a balanced budget. For this reason, the Administration's strong support for cooperative R&D deserves special notice. Most of the specific activities I just listed-and many others like them-receive double digit percentage increases in the President's budget, even though overall discretionary spending is essentially level.

This makes clear that the budget and the Council's report are very closely aligned. Both provide a framework for all of us to work together, so that investments in science and engineering continue to receive the same, strong bipartisan support in the Congress that they have enjoyed for generations.

Let me close therefore by returning to the point I made at the outset of my remarks: our science and technology enterprise is neither a superstar nor a stepchild. Rather, it is an integral member of a championship team-perhaps even an Oscar winning team. If we follow through on the Council's report and the President's budget, we greatly strengthen this team and ensure continued U.S. leadership in science and technology in the 21st Century.