September 20, 2005    Volume 12, No. 17

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White House Will Create Metrics To Prioritize Federal R&D Spending


"Do we get [greater] impact on our future competitiveness by spending a dollar on space exploration or by spending a dollar on information-technology research?"

This question, raised by Presidential Science Adviser John Marburger, is typical of many surrounding the efficacy of federally supported research to which, he contends, policymakers currently lack meaningful answers. Which is why, in conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), he's forming an Interagency Working Group (IWG) tasked with finding a way to arrive at them.

"What's being done to determine the effectiveness of federal science policy? Not very much," Marburger stated during a telephone interview with Manufacturing & Technology News that took place earlier this month. "Is what is being done now inadequate? Yes, it is inadequate, and it's inadequate because it doesn't really exist."

Rather than a "systematic effort," Marburger said, he has seen only "ad hoc initiatives." Not even OMB's agency-evaluation process, which is applied to science and technology, is "designed to test the effectiveness of policy." In the absence of the information, the federal government has "more or less based [its science] policies on historical precedent."

The interagency process of which the IWG will be a part and which, he hopes, will move federal policymaking in a more analytical direction was announced in the annual memo on "Administration Research and Development Budget Priorities" for 2007. That document was issued jointly on July 8 by OMB and the White House Office and Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), of which Marburger is director.

To be conducted under the auspices of the cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and managed by OSTP, the process will, according to the memo, "develop a new framework for understanding the impact of R&D investments; define appropriate data elements for monitoring and assessing this impact; contribute to the international effort to understand the impact of globalization of science and technology; and improve the basis for national science policy decisions."

Determining the effectiveness of federal science policy "requires an understanding of the complex linkages between R&D investments and economic and other variables that lead to innovation, competitiveness and societal benefits," says the July 8 memo. Or, as put more plainly by Marburger, what's needed is a model.

"These data about how many [technical] degrees are being produced or patents filed or papers published," he said, referring to evidence often used to benchmark the country's slipping performance in science and technology, "do not obviously speak for themselves. They only have meaning in the context of some model that you have of how the world works."

The kind of model Marburger has in mind is the stock in trade of econometricians, who use such models to predict how "the market [is] going to respond to a change in interest rates or to a changed retirement age," just to pick a couple of examples.

"If you do tax policy, you've got a large literature to advise you, [but] we don't have that kind of literature for science policy," he said. "We don't have a lot of information on the impact of increasing scholarships for people who study electrical engineering, and we ought to.

"And we need to know more about the overall model, as it were, of technical work from cradle to grave in order to put all these data into context. So that's one of the things that I'm trying to encourage: to try to get more focus, particularly by social scientists, on making models similar to econometric models that give us a better handle on where we should be spending our money."

In the absence of such models "we have data we don't completely understand," Marburger said. "We also have a lot of advocacy. We have famous scientists and we have CEOs of technology-oriented corporations that are concerned about what they see who are speaking out in support of more federal money for their field or their interest or whatever it is."

It was this discourse that, in part, prompted Marburger to devote his April keynote speech at the Policy Forum of the American Association for the Advancement of Science to the benchmarking of U.S. S&T performance, the event to which he dates what he calls his "public visibility on this issue."

That speech was seen by some as a vehement defense of Bush administration's budget policy and a simultaneous slap at its critics (MTN, May 6, p. 1). Whether that assessment was accurate or not, at present Marburger at least appears ready to meet somewhere near halfway those who have "suggested that we were somehow in a crisis situation [and] we needed to do something about it.

"I think most people agree that the world is changing and that other countries are developing capabilities in science and technology, and they're becoming more competitive with us -- and we need to pay attention to things like education and how we fund science and so forth," he said.

"I concede that: That is true. And this administration has made math and science education, for example, a very high priority. We don't dispute that it's really important to pay attention to quality of education and encouraging people to go into math and science and engineering careers, and we're really interested in stimulating that."

The Interagency Working Group taking on the issue of determining the effectiveness of federal R&D investments will have representatives from all federal agencies with money in their budgets for R&D. Under an NSTC interagency process, these representatives are typically the officers who administer the participating agencies' science and technology programs.

Chairing the group is likely to be an official with the National Science Foundation, which Marburger said will be the "primary agency" in charge by virtue of the fact that it already has a "unit that does the statistics and that supports economic-type analyses directed toward science and technology." OSTP, which will "guide the process," will probably provide a co-chair.

The group's initial task "will be to prepare a road map or plan of action" that it will implement after agreeing on which agencies should do which pieces, according to Marburger. Its first product will be to "put a little bit of flesh" on the four points outlined in the joint OMB-OSTP memo.

"This is not a new function: All agencies try to evaluate the effectiveness of their programs," he observed. "We want to make sure that the money they're already spending on these activities is focused at least in part on making progress on answering this question about the effectiveness of science policy."

Already, OSTP has been briefed on the subject by NSF and by a committee of the National Research Council, and it is in close touch with representatives of the European Union and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Both of the latter "have initiatives that collect data and try to make sense of it for science and technology," said Marburger, and both have expressed interest in collaborating for the sake of efficiency.

"Other countries," he remarked, "have tried to decide how much of their resources they should invest in research of various kinds, and they tend to end up simply doing what the United States does.

"They all try to emulate the United States, and they tend to do that pretty systematically." It is, then, perhaps somewhat ironic that, as Marburger acknowledges, "we don't do these things that systematically."

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