Friday, February 22, 2013

Post # 77: The Societal Contract & Federally-Funded Research

In my previous post I bemoaned the relative lack of focus on applied research in the federal sector. 
For most of my career, leaders in the federal research establishment typically described the research and technology development enterprise as a 1-dimensional vector similar to this:

The primary role of federally-funded research and development (R&D) in the physical sciences – that is, R&D funded with mine and your tax dollars – was to support the extreme left side of the vector – to pursue "big science" or "discovery science."   As a result of this thinking, a culture developed in which it became almost taboo for federal R&D dollars to be spent on anything with the potential for near-term applications.  (Military and defense R&D, and some biological R&D were the notable exceptions to this norm.)  This behavioral trend was strengthened by criticisms about "corporate welfare" whenever major federal applied research programs were contemplated. 

One result of the "vector view" of scientific research and technology development was the emergence of a "valley of death" separating fundamental research and applied research.

New knowledge and infant technologies of a practical variety often died there because they were deemed too mature for the federal sector to invest in their development, and too immature for the private sector to invest in their development. (Recall that Risk Aversion problem ?)  Having spent over thirty years in the federal research system, I'm all too familiar with the "valley of death" that obstructs the metamorphosis of knowledge to technology and the movement of a new technology from concept to the consumer marketplace.  

One of my major issues with the dominant federal "big science" view of R&D in the past twenty years is that it ignores the Societal Contract underlying all federally-funded research.

In my view, that Societal Contract is one in which taxpayers who fund the research have a right to expect a return on their investment.  Put another way, in my view those who lead and manage federally-funded research bear a heavy responsibility to POSITIVELY IMPACT SOCIETY in return for society's sponsorship of their research.  I can recall multiple instances in my latter years at ORNL in which we came together to answer the question, "What R&D have we done recently that has really impacted the public?"  Those were usually awkward and difficult discussions. (But not as awkward and difficult as those times when we asked ourselves the question, "What R&D have we done that has actually solved a problem the average person on the street really cares about?")

Perhaps these standards are too high and too lofty?  Is it possible the major problems the seven billion people of Planet Earth face today are so complex they cannot be solved?  Or perhaps our problems are so nebulous we cannot know when and if we have solved them?

Or, perhaps, just perhaps, science and technology aren't the solution to our greatest problems and challenges.

Just Thinking...


  1. Very astute observation. Bringing basic research to practical use creates wealth that can then be used to fund additional basic research. There is one hurdle. Funding the necessary applied research now to get to those practical uses would likely mean that basic research would be restricted in the near term, until the additional wealth is produced. Those playing in the basic research sandbox will sure object to their (short term) pain.

  2. Thanks for the comment! Don't get me wrong. I believe "basic", "fundamental", or "discovery" research (pick you favorite term) is important. But I also feel that (with the exception of defense and bio-health research) the federal R&D portfolio during the past couple of decades has been characterized by an over-emphasis on basic research relative to applied research.