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NSF & Congress


Dr. Rita Colwell

Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation

Before the House Committee on Science
Subcommittee on Basic Research
September 28, 1999

Chairman Smith, members of the subcommittee, thank you for inviting me to testify at this important hearing.

Mr. Chairman, today's hearing on the benefits of basic research is both appropriate and timely. The approach of the new millennium brings with it the 50th anniversary of the National Science Foundation. We therefore welcome this opportunity to discuss how NSF has promoted progress across our society and how we can all be confident that NSF's investments deliver a high return to the taxpayer.

My testimony today will cover three general topics.

  • First, I will share just a few highlights from NSF's many historical accomplishments. These highlights speak directly to the sources of growth and job creation in today's economy.

  • Second, I will examine trends related to the health and vitality of current investments in basic research.

  • Finally, I will describe a number of specific activities at NSF that promote the connections necessary to ensure that today's advances in basic research become tomorrow's sources of innovation and progress.

Many commentators have recognized the importance of basic research to our health, welfare and economy. All signs are that advances in knowledge have driven one-half of the growth in the U.S. economy since the close of World War II. It is only in recent years, however, that we have witnessed the incredible payoffs that flow from patient and sustained investments in the pursuit of fundamental knowledge.

This fact was brought home quite vividly by the covers on the September 27 issues of two of America's leading news magazines. Both Time and Business Week feature cover stories on the E-conomy -- the dot-coms and Internet-based companies that are reshaping the economic landscape. The articles describe in detail the impact the Internet has had on all forms of commerce -- from soup to nuts, literally.

It is significant in itself that neither article mentions NSF or the other Federal agencies that launched this great information revolution.

  • It was only 30 years ago this past September 2 that very first message was sent via what became the ARPANET. At the time, e-mail was an afterthought. The primary goal was to give researchers access to what were then leading-edge computing facilities.

  • The NSFNet of the 1980's was the first true network of networks, hence the term, internet. Indeed, it was David Mills, an NSF grantee at the University of Delaware, who made it possible to have one Internet as opposed to a Tower of Babel of competing electronic networks. Mills developed the first widely-used Internet routers -- the gateways and switches that guide the bits and bytes of data around the globe at the speed of light. That's why many people say NSF put the "inter" in Internet.

When we look back even further into NSF's history, we find equally compelling examples of the impact of basic research. Recombinant DNA technology is a good example.

At the time of the founding of NSF in 1950, the study of genetics was in a period that by today's standards, can best be described as the Genetic Stone Age. Indeed at that time, the structure of the DNA molecule had yet to be discovered. Many scientists were highly skeptical that there could be a molecular basis for genetic changes.

One of the very first grants NSF ever awarded was to Dr. Max Delbruck, for a study entitled "Mechanisms Underlying Genetic Recombination in Bacteria." The results of Delbruck's work and teaching contributed to the rise of modern molecular genetics.

One of Delbruck's students, Dr. James Watson, went on to discover the structure of the DNA molecule -- for which he and Francis Crick won the Nobel Prize in 1962. Delbruck himself won the Nobel Prize in 1969 and another Delbruck student, Renato Delbecco, with David Baltimore and Howard Temin, won a Nobel Prize in 1975 for their adaptation of Delbruck's techniques to the study of animal viruses.

Today we are reaping the fruits of this important early work. We are in the midst of an age of genomics, the biotechnology industry is a multibillion dollar industry, and the United States is the world leader in biotechnology with applications from agriculture to aquaculture to pharmaceutics. The genomics revolution is enabling the study of whole genomes rather than single genes, giving us a perspective on living systems that we've never had before.

This particular example brings to light one aspect of the impact of basic research that we often overlook. NSF's Engineering Directorate recently sponsored a set of studies on today's leading technologies: areas like cell phones, fiber optics, and computer assisted design. It's well known that the great majority of the seminal work in these areas was performed by private industry -- at labs like Corning, AT&T, and Motorola.

Does that mean that NSF had no role? Hardly. When you go back and look at the work, a clear pattern emerges. Scientists and engineers who went to graduate school on NSF fellowships and research assistantships often brought the key insights to industry. In a number of cases, they became the entrepreneurs who created new firms and markets.

To use the words of the authors of the study -- "NSF emerges consistently as a major -- often the major, source of support for education and training of the Ph.D. scientists and engineers who went on to make major contributions...." [emphasis in original]

This diverse array of advances and discoveries compels us to pay close attention to the current context for research in America. We know that our economy is the envy of the world. Its continuing growth is being fueled primarily by expansions in the service sector and in the information technology industry.

The current R&D funding environment, however, sends decidedly mixed signals about prospects for sustained growth and innovation. To use the words of the National Science Board, "The nation's S&E enterprise is undergoing changes in structure and priorities as we prepare to enter the next century."

R&D funding patterns have changed substantially. The good news is that total national R&D funding has never been higher. It now amounts to more than $240 billion. That's up almost 9 percent over the 1998 level.

Just as important for policy-makers, however, is the shift in shares for Federal and industry investments. Industry now provides nearly 70 percent of our total national investment in R&D.

The Federal government provides barely more than one-fourth of the total. A decade ago, the federal share was 46 percent. Three decades ago, the federal share was 60 percent.

Some have looked at these data and said, all is well. The economy is strong; employment is growing. Why can't we rest on our laurels?

The answer to that question becomes clear when we examine the growing linkage between industrial innovation and public investments in research.

You may be familiar with the now-famous study by Dr. Francis Narin and his colleagues at CHI Research. It was featured in the 1998 National Science Board report, Industry Trends in Research Support and Links to Public Research. NSF has helped to fund Dr. Narin's work as part of our biennial publication, "Science and Engineering Indicators."

Dr. Narin's study demonstrates the linkage between patents granted in the U.S. system and research published in the scientific literature. When we ask where the knowledge that drives innovation comes from, the answer is clear. It comes predominately from publicly-supported research. Nearly two-thirds of the papers on cited on recent U.S. patents were published by organizations primarily supported by public funding.

Just as important is that the rate of these linkages is increasing dramatically. Nearly 50,000 citations on U.S. patents issued in 1996 referred to scientific and technical articles. That has increased more than five-fold since 1988. Private industry is increasingly dependent on academic research and other publicly-supported research.

The federal government alone has the ability to make the long-term investments needed to sustain the remarkable growth and progress we are enjoying today as a society. This was best expressed by the Council on Competitiveness in the report, Going Global, that it released late last year.

The Council consists of CEOs, R&D managers, and top officials from over 120 leading corporations, universities, and government agencies. They came to a clear consensus on the need for increased public investment in fundamental research and education.

To quote: "For the past 50 years, most, if not all, of the technological advances have been directly linked to improvements in fundamental understanding. Investment in discovery research creates the seedcorn for future innovation. Government at all levels is the mainstay of the nation's investment in science and engineering research...."

The Council went on to add that: "Most [industrial] R&D managers are investing with an eye on the bottom line, but more than a handful wonder from where the next generation of breakthrough technologies will come."

This brings me to the third and final section of my testimony, Mr. Chairman -- how NSF encourages the connections and partnership that link the pursuit of knowledge with those who are best able to apply it and put it to use.

NSF's strategic plan directly addresses this point -- as expressed by our second outcome goal: "Connections between discoveries and their use in service to society." We have specified in our FY2000 performance plan that realizing this goal will mean that "the results of NSF awards are rapidly and readily available and feed, as appropriate, into education, policy development, or use by other federal agencies or the private sector."

This will occur through an array of activities. The connection between the new knowledge that results from basic research and future applications is perhaps most clearly exemplified in NSF's center activities. Nearly 1500 companies participate as partners at NSF sponsored centers. These represent not only high technology firms, but also financial services, insurance, and pharmaceuticals companies. NSF's support of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) are also obvious examples of the nexus between basic research and applications.

But less obvious examples are equally important. One of the best links between leading edge scientific and engineering thinking and solutions to real world problems occurs when a business hires a college graduate who has had a chance to work on an NSF funded research project. Twenty thousand graduate students and nearly 30,000 undergraduates are directly involved in NSF programs and activities every year. NSF programs such as Grant Opportunities for Academic Liaison with Industry are designed specifically to provide cross-fertilization between academic researchers and industry engineers and scientists.

The research investments that NSF makes do not end with the individual investigator who receives a NSF grant, the graduate student trained in the latest techniques, or the small business with an SBIR award. These investments are catalysts. They shape our economic future through new knowledge that pays for itself again and again and again.

Other forms of government policies are also vital to U.S. technological leadership. Governments can encourage collaboration and nurture the sharing of knowledge. They can permit heretofore restricted activities and offer incentives to move in risk-taking directions.

For example, in 1980, when the U.S. was at its highest distress over competition from Japan, the federal government initiated policy changes that over time have fostered our current innovative posture. One of the problems was that our national system of investment in science and technology was dedicated to strengthening our national security and winning the Cold War. Private sector companies - outside of military contractors - had little access to innovations produced in federal laboratories.

The creation of technology transfer statutes such as the Stevenson-Wydler Innovation Act and the Bayh-Dole Act, both championed by the Science Committee in the 1980's, were important milestones. Their concepts were simple but their impact considerable. Stevenson-Wydler made it government policy to move technologies out of the nation's over 700 national laboratories.

The goal was to get the technology into the hands of those who could turn it into marketable products or processes. What started as a trickle turned into a torrent.

In the process, Stevenson-Wydler changed the culture in both government and industry. The old barriers and suspicions between the two sectors began to weaken. There was an increasing sense of the two sectors sharing common goals of boosting innovation and productivity.

With the Bayh-Dole Act, we saw a first step in broadening U.S. patent policy. In particular, it gave universities, doing research under government contract, the right to keep the technologies they had developed and seek patents for them in their own names.

This was a sea change in government policy. It helped reverse the pattern of mass accumulation of government technologies that then languished in the forgotten land of archiving and storage. It also opened a new entrepreneurial path for university and government researchers to begin marketable ventures of their own.

In essence, the government was trying to change its own long-held rules in recognition that the times had changed, and that survival required a new game plan.

In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, let me add that NSF's has a had a proud history of investing in the best people, the most imaginative ideas, and the most innovative tools. All of this is done with an eye toward their potential use in service to society.

We of course know we cannot rest on our laurels. We will have even more exciting opportunities in the future because of research that we are investing in today.

  • Nanotechnology is allowing us to build machines so small that they are rapidly approaching the scale of human cells. Consider: a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles. We are on the verge of building machines on that scale.

  • New devices based on quantum computing or DNA computing could make the information revolution of today look like a paltry beginning.

  • And, understanding of the social and cultural impacts of technological change could change the scope and manner in which new technologies are deployed.

Last year's National Science Policy Report - produced under the leadership of the House Science Committee Chairman Sensenbrenner and Vice Chairman Ehlers - captured this very point.

"The federal investment in science has yielded stunning payoffs. It has spawned not only new products, but also entire industries. To build upon the strength of the research enterprise we must make federal research funding stable and substantial, maintain diversity in the federal research portfolio, and promote creative, groundbreaking research."

We are very proud of the impact of NSF-supported basic research over the agency's first 50 years. With your support and the Congress' support, Mr. Chairman, the next 50 years promise to bring even greater rewards to all Americans.