- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Ships from: La Grange Park, IL
Usually ships in 1-2 business days
The Contributions of Academic Science to Greater Competitiveness
* * *
Since 1946, when Vannevar Bush submitted his famous report on national science policy, Americans have put great faith in the capacity of basic research to help us build a stronger, more prosperous, more secure society. As Harvey Brooks has observed: "The implicit message of the Bush report seemed to be that technology was essentially the application of leading edge science and that, if the country created and sustained a first-class science establishment based primarily in the universities, the generation of new technology for national security, economic growth, job creation, and social welfare would follow almost automatically without explicit attention to all the other complementary pieces of the innovation system."
In keeping with this faith in science, some commentators have suggested that an important reason for our sluggish productivity and our competitive decline is that the federal government has failed to maintain our national research effort by supplying it with sufficient funds. There is evidence to support this view. From 1967 to 1987 the share of GNP that Washington devotes to research and development (R & D) dropped from 2.1 to 1.3 percent. Outlays for civilian purposes lagged much more than military R & D over this period, and nonmilitary research is far more important for our productivity. Although rising corporate expenditures have helped offset this trend, our leading competitors now spend relatively more than the United States on civilian R & D. Thus, all nonmilitary outlays total less than 2 percent of GNP in America compared with almost 2.6 percent in Japan and 2.8 percent in West Germany.
It should be noted that government funds for university research have not fallen very much as a percentage of GNP. Nevertheless, particular aspects of academic science in America have been especially hard-hit. For example, grants for research facilities have dropped by a staggering 95 percent since the 1960s, while the number of federal fellowships and traineeships has dipped by more than 25 percent. These declines help to explain a backlog in renovations needed for academic laboratories that government commissions have estimated at ten to twenty billion dollars and a shortage of American graduate students that has led leading departments of engineering and computer science to admit 50 percent or more of their Ph.D. candidates from abroad.
In the wake of these trends, many voices have been heard stressing the importance of research to economic growth and prosperity. According to the president of Carnegie-Mellon University, Richard Cyert: "It is clear that knowledge is the source of economic power in the United States. The major factor that will determine progress is the amount of funding available for research." Erich Bloch, director of the National Science Foundation, echoes these sentiments: "Investment in science and engineering research has been the source of much of our economic progress over the past four decades." Bloch adds: "Investment in the knowledge base is consequently a major instrument of competition for all nations. The most important thing a nation can do to assure its economic prosperity is to maintain its position at the frontiers of knowledge by investing in science and engineering research...."
National commissions headed by leading industrialists have made the same point in stressing the need to strengthen the research capacity of universities. According to a 1986 report by the White House Science Council:
The health of U.S. society is uniquely coupled to that of universities. To a greater degree than in any other country this Nation looks to its universities both for new knowledge and for young trained minds prepared to use it effectively. But just at a time when much is expected of our universities, after more than a decade of retrenchment and belt-tightening, they find themselves with obsolete equipment, aging facilities, and growing shortages of faculty members and students in many important fields.... Our conclusion is clear: our universities today simply cannot respond to society's expectations for them or discharge their national responsibilities in research and education without substantially increased support.
Politicians, mindful of what universities have done to spur high-tech industry in Silicon Valley, Route 128, and the Research Triangle often endorse this conclusion and echo the call for more federal funding for university-based research.
Will Strengthening Basic Research Improve Our Competitive Position?
Arguments of this kind sound convincing. Before we swallow them whole, however, there are some awkward questions we need to answer. If basic research is so important to economic progress and productivity, why did the United States become economically dominant many decades ago when little scientific research was being done in American universities, and why did we decline competitively during the last quarter century when our universities and their scientific accomplishments have led the world? Conversely, why is it that Japan has been forging ahead so spectacularly when its universities and the quality of their research have been distinctly inferior to ours?
Against the backdrop of history, these paradoxes do not seem so baffling. For centuries, nations that have excelled in scientific discovery have not managed to lead in technological innovation and economic growth. In the Middle Ages, for example, the liveliest centers of science were located in China and Islam, but the greatest economic and commercial growth occurred in Europe. In the nineteenth century, England pioneered the development of the steam engine even though the underlying scientific discoveries occurred on the Continent. Conversely, Germans developed the synthetic dye industry on the basis of a fundamental discovery made by a British organic chemist.
There is a reason for this historical pattern. Until the late nineteenth century, industrial innovation did not depend heavily on science. Technological advances had mainly to do with levers, pulleys, gears, and other devices that were the natural province of inventors and engineers rather than university scientists. Not until the nineteenth century was nearly over did the process of technological innovation begin to draw significantly on the invisible world of atoms, molecules, bacteria, genes, and electromagnetic waves that only scientists could manipulate and understand. In earlier periods, therefore, one can readily understand why success in scientific discovery did not guarantee equivalent success economically.
In the modern era, technological innovation and science have become more and more closely intertwined. Entire industries have developed out of scientific discoveries, and modern corporations will pay millions of dollars to establish collaborative relations with leading university laboratories. Nevertheless, the relationship between basic research and technological innovation is much more complicated than one might suppose. Technological progress depends on knowledge derived from advances in basic research, but it also depends on entrepreneurial skill, engineering talent, and many other factors as well. As a result, scientific achievement is only moderately correlated with technological progress.
There is another, more obvious reason why preeminence in basic research may not cause a nation to attain a comparable leadership in technology. Science respects no national boundaries. By its very nature, it depends on a free and broad dissemination of results that allows investigators everywhere to profit from the work of others and to contribute something new in their turn. With information exchanged so freely, it is relatively easy for business enterprises in one country to learn of basic discoveries made in another. By reading scientific journals, sending scientists to international meetings, monitoring patents and trade journals, and encouraging graduate students to study abroad, Japanese and European concerns can readily stay abreast of scientific advances in the United States and quickly put them to use for their own commercial advantage.
This process is not confined to foreign companies. In this era of global enterprise, even American firms may take scientific work performed in this country and use it to improve the productivity of plants located overseas. And so it is that scientific leadership in the United States can fail to result in commercial leadership at home even in the most sophisticated technological industries. That is why the first fallacy in considering how to keep America competitive is to suppose that greater funding for academic science can do much by itself to reverse our decline.
Should We Keep Academic Science from Foreign Competitors?
The conclusion just expressed seems puzzling. Surely, leadership in science must have great potential value to a highly advanced economy. Isn't there something we could do to extract more competitive advantage from our uniquely strong capability in basic research? For example, why can't we improve our competitive position by keeping foreign governments and companies from having such ready access to American science? After all, thousands of scientists come to this country to learn our latest methods and take them back for use in their native countries. Foreign companies support research in our universities, often at bargain-basement prices, in order to "open a window" on American science. Are there barriers we could erect that would slow the transfer of new knowledge abroad and thus put foreign firms at a greater disadvantage?
With such thoughts in mind, government officials have already begun to make efforts to stem the outflow of new scientific knowledge. Congressional committees have criticized universities for making research agreements with foreign firms that may help the latter to reap the fruits of government-funded research. A bill was recently introduced in Congress to authorize federal agencies to withhold commercially promising discoveries produced in government-owned laboratories. Foreign scientists have been barred from a few scientific meetings, such as the 1986 White House conference on superconductivity. The Reagan administration even made a few, largely unsuccessful attempts to apply export restrictions to scientific and technical information that was "sensitive" in nature though not classifiable as military secrets.
Occasional efforts to shield research from foreigners have also been made by American universities. Carnegie-Mellon, for example, has actually restricted the number of Japanese graduate students and refused to accept research grants from Japanese companies. According to the provost, Angel Jordan, "There is some concern that this would be a transfer of technology to Japan, which we should avoid." Similar thoughts have also been expressed by the media. Thus, the Washington Post has openly questioned the practice of allowing foreign graduate students to be educated in our science departments for the low tuitions commonly charged to Americans. As Michael Schrage put it: "What kind of policy is it that subsidizes America's corporate rivals with millions of dollars of our vital research?"
While these concerns are understandable, any serious effort to restrict the number of foreign students studying science in our universities would be self-defeating and wrong. It would be churlish for a country whose science was built on the contributions of sdentists from abroad to refuse to educate promising foreigners seeking instruction in our universities. Moreover, in contrast to the situation only a generation ago, we graduate fewer engineers and sdentists relative to our population than our prindpal industrial competitors, and experts predict substantial shortages in both fields before the century comes to an end. As a result, our foreign students are a critical source of strength, for over half of them elect to stay in this country, and their contribution to American science and engineering would be difficult to replace from domestic sources. Under these circumstances, discouraging such students would only result in injuring ourselves.
It would be equally shortsighted to try to restrict the flow of information to foreign companies by barring research agreements or attendance at scientific conferences. There are many ways for foreign firms to keep up with scientific developments in America—by reading scientific journals, attending conferences, hiring recent Ph.D.'s, or acquiring an interest in U.S. companies. As a practical matter, it would be impossible to block all these channels effectively enough to make much practical difference. If we somehow managed to do so, scientific progress would quickly suffer, since science depends heavily on open communication among colleagues working in the same or related fields. Moreover, efforts on our part to stop the flow of information would undoubtedly provoke retaliation abroad, thus impeding scientific discovery even further. In research just as in commerce, free trade is the best way to secure progress for all.
But doesn't it go too far when American universities sign contracts with foreign companies accepting research funds in exchange for exclusive rights to exploit discoveries resulting from work done under the agreement? Does this not result, as some Congressmen have claimed, in allowing foreign rivals to profit at our expense from academic talent and facilities developed with money supplied by American taxpayers? Such arguments have obvious political appeal. Still, they are not terribly convincing. For one thing, it is not easy to tell what country will benefit from agreements of this kind. Arrangements made with American companies may result in discoveries used to manufacture abroad, while foreign companies may apply the discoveries made in American universities to manufacture in the United States. Moreover, forbidding research agreements with foreign corporations will simply reduce the amount of research performed by our universities. This reduction in turn threatens to slow the rate of progress not only for foreign consumers but for our own as well. For all these reasons, the notion that we should try to give ourselves a commercial advantage by hiding our discoveries from foreign firms is shortsighted and represents the second major fallacy in thinking about the effects of research on our economic competitiveness.
Should We Encourage Closer University-Industry Cooperation?
Instead of trying to keep our competitors from learning about our scientific discoveries, many people have urged universities to work more closely with American corporations to speed the translation of scientific knowledge into technological innovations. Such suggestions have met with enthusiasm from almost every quarter. Government officials hope that closer cooperation will give our companies a needed technological advantage. Corporations are eager to gain new knowledge in burgeoning fields, such as biogenetics, where discoveries may quickly lead to profitable new products. Universities have been quick to capitalize on opportunities to earn royalty income from successful patents and to gain corporate research funds in exchange for the promise of exclusive licenses on any discoveries that result. Academic scientists too have jumped at the chance of acquiring new sources of research support while benefiting personally from opportunities to earn large consulting fees or even hold stock in newly created companies.
Despite this enthusiasm, the new methods of cooperation promise to be something of a mixed blessing. On the positive side, preliminary reports suggest that research arrangements with universities are yielding several times as many patents as the same amount of corporate money invested in other, more traditional forms of company research. On the other hand, contracts with industry create special dangers for the type of academic environment needed for basic research. Companies may insist on secrecy requirements to protect proprietary information. The lure of commercial success can induce talented faculty members to spend too much time starting a company or consulting with established firms, so that the quality of their basic research may begin to suffer. It is even possible that some professors will exploit their graduate students by persuading them to work on commercially valuable research rather than projects of greater academic value. Carried to excess, such practices could corrupt basic research and eventually weaken it significantly.
It is still too early to tell what the net effect of industry-university cooperation will be. The reports to date have not substantiated early fears that academic science will be corrupted. Nevertheless, universities are constantly pressed to accept questionable arrangements with industry. More and more companies are asking that research contracts include provisions prohibiting academic scientists funded by one company from collaborating with investigators funded by another. More and more universities are agreeing to stricter limits on the use and disclosure of proprietary information obtained from the firms that fund them. A few institutions have even agreed to clauses that require them to keep faculty members from speaking about their commercially funded research at academic meetings without first submitting their remarks to their industrial sponsors.
Excerpted from Universities and the Future of America by Derek Bok. Copyright © 1990 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.