Federally Funded Research: The Key to Unexpected (and Valuable) Discoveries
By John R. Platt
(Originally published November 2013 in IEEE-USA's Today's Engineer)
One of the most important discoveries in modern genetics and biotechnology got its start more than four decades ago with a grant from the National Science Foundation to study the humble bacteria that live in high-temperature geysers in Yellowstone National Park. Back in 1969 microbiologist Thomas Brock and his undergraduate research assistant, Hudson Freeze, journeyed to Yellowstone and discovered a new bacteria species, which they named Thermus aquaticus bacteria, in the waters of the Lower Geyser Basin. In the years that followed their discovery unlocked new fields of study for other researchers, inspiring new technologies for studying DNA, genetic tests to diagnose diseases and conditions, and sequencing the human genome.
That's the beauty and importance of federally funded research, says Freeze, who today serves as the director of the genetic disease program at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla, California. "You can't predict where the research is going to go next."
Taking a Chance on the Unexpected
The early work of Brock and Freeze has not been forgotten. This year they are among the honorees of the second annual Golden Goose Award, which was created to recognize scientists and engineers whose federally funded research led to "significant human and economic benefits." The award, now in its second year, highlights seemingly obscure federally funded studies that led to later breakthroughs which had a major impact on society. The other recipients of this year's award include John Eng, whose study of Gila monster venom led to an important drug for diabetes; and David Gale, Lloyd Shipley and Alvin Roth, whose separate research into subjects as varied as marriage stability and urban school choice programs let to the creation of the national kidney exchange program.
"The value of federally funded research has been proven time and time again," says Barry Toiv, vice president for public affairs at the Association of American Universities, one of the organizations sponsoring the Golden Goose Award. (IEEE-USA helped to sponsor a video about this year's award.) "Economists suggest that 50% of growth over the last several decades has been a result of innovation, much of which is in turn a result of federally funded research at American universities."
Toiv says this research is important even though "it's impossible to know where so much of it is going to lead. It's basic research, mostly, and it may not have some end-result in mind when it takes place."
Federally funded research is the "only place that you can take that kind of chance," says Freeze. "Private industry can't do it because they have to show that they're working on something that will eventually yield a profit." He notes that the life-saving research being done at his own organization, a non-profit, would probably not be conducted at all in the for-profit world.
Thom Mason, director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee, echoes this observation. "There's not a lot of room for fundamental science in an environment where people are driven by the next quarterly report." He says corporations have a hard time justifying investments that "may take decades to pay off, or pay off in a completely different way than anticipated and not necessarily in a way that would enrich the company which did the work."
ORNL receives its funding through the Department of Energy's Office of Science, as well as the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Although the lab does tend to work in areas that Mason characterizes as "not too far away from some kind of end-use application," the fact that they do not build or sell anything means they are not restricted to work that has an immediate commercial application. "We can push things to a point of proof of principle and then, hopefully, hand it off to the private sector or the Department of Defense or whoever to really deploy it."
Research for All
Beyond funding individual projects, federal dollars also help pay for collective resources that become available to researchers from around the country. ORNL, for example, hosts the famous Titan supercomputer, the Spallation Neutron Source and the High Flux Isotope Reactor, among other tools. "It's a big investment," Mason says. "These are shared resources. They serve a wide range of communities."
These types of systems exist outside the scope of most if not all corporate budgets, says IEEE Fellow Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for the National Science Foundation's Engineering Directorate. "Modern scientific and engineering research involves very sophisticated infrastructure, whether that infrastructure is physical laboratories, instruments or computational resources. It's very difficult to imagine that any entity other than the federal government would have the resources to create and then support and sustain this kind of fundamental, long-term basic research. I think it's just too expensive for any single entity."
Beyond that, Mason points out that the majority of the research conducted at government facilities is open-literature research. "It's not proprietary, so again, how would you ever justify a return to shareholders if the results are just going to be published in the open literature?" Since most of this research is basic science, it is also hard to protect it as intellectual property, a priority for corporate research.
Outside of the research itself, the federal government helps support the development of young scientists. "We're not just federally funding research," Toiv says, "we're also funding training of scientists and engineers, and this has been extraordinarily successful for the country."
Khargonekar himself benefitted from that support back in 1985 when, as a young researcher, he received the NSF's Presidential Investigator Award. "I must say it was one of the best things that have happened to me in professional life," he tells me. "I still remember receiving the certificate with President Reagan's signature on it. You know, I was born in India and I came to U.S. to do my graduate work. But to receive an award from the President of the United States left a deep impression on me and was very, very helpful in my early research." He used the funding from the award to attract "some really outstanding graduate students" and together they wrote a number of papers which he says have had a very strong impact on the field of control theory. "That NSF Presidential Investigator Award was certainly very critical to our success and I think at the foundation of my professional career," he says.
Despite Successes, Threats Abound
Despite the proven track record of federally funded research, budgets continue to shrink. The federal sequester of 2011 and the shut-down of 2013 both hurt federally funded science, and some politicians see the need to cut things even more. "Research funding is going down," Toiv says. "It's not just flat. It's just declining." Many research labs have had to shutter projects, lay off employees and scale back their operating hours as a result of these cuts.
Meanwhile a few politicians even go as far as to mock federally funded science projects, something we first saw decades ago when then-Senator William Proxmire began issuing his monthly Golden Fleece Awards. (The Golden Goose Award is named in part as a response to Proxmire's awards.) "This is damaging to the public's view of science," Toiv says. "When policy-makers ridicule individual examples of research, when they look for things that sound funny, when they target and when they try to de-fund them or even try to de-fund entire disciplines, they are dismissing the possibilities of discovery. They are, in the long run, damaging the country, because they are limiting the possibilities of innovation that benefits the economy, that leads to a new industry and that leads to a new idea that ends up saving lives."
The public isn't the only group to feel the effect of this dismissal. Researchers feel it as well. "If the creativity of researchers is stifled, if they are worried or if federal agencies are worried that they can't fund research, it could damage the entire innovation enterprise that has made this country," Toiv says.
While Sanford-Burnham has ramped up its efforts to attract additional funding from philanthropists and to license some of its discoveries, that may not be the most sustainable path. Freeze says funding uncertainty has already created a brain drain in his organization, as faculty members have left to take positions overseas. Similar brain drains are happening around the country, as other nations attract people with promises of more stable funding. Several European countries, China and Korea are pouring their resources into research and basing their systems on that in the U.S.
"Other countries are absolutely trying to imitate this," Toiv says, "because the magnitude of the success of the scientific enterprise in this country is unquestionable." He points at countries such as China, which is developing new research universities at a record pace. "They're not going to match our research universities in the short run, but in the long they are."
Although Mason acknowledges that other countries are overtaking us, he says the U.S. remains the "gold standard" for federally funded research. Khargonekar used the same phrase when describing the NSF grant review process, which he calls "one of the very best review processes anywhere in the world." That helps to support the high quality of the research being done in this country. "We do the best job we can for the taxpayers and for the public so that their investments help society as best as is possible."
But do the public and legislators get that message? Freeze suggests that researchers in general "haven't done the greatest job at the grassroots level of educating people about science and where science funding comes from."
Khargonekar takes it further: "We, the scientific community and the engineering community, need to continuously make the case to the public and the policy makers as to why investment in research is critically important for national progress, our well-being and our society to remain economically competitive, health of our citizens, and the security of the nation."
And Mason recommends that emphasizing the value of science in general may help to alleviate fears about the economy. "A component of solving the deficit problem has to be growth in the economy," he says. "You've got to grow the revenues. You've got to grow the economy, and innovation technology research is a critical part of that."
Toiv suggests that politicians may need to be better educated about the value of scientific research. "What policy-makers sometimes don't realize is that the work that researchers do may end up leading to some extraordinary innovation, but it's impossible to know at the time. It is discovery upon discovery, twists and turns. Researchers are looking for one thing and they find something else. There's serendipity often involved."
How do we turn things around? Freeze suggests that a well-prepared team of engineers going out and talking to local groups could help do the trick. "Just try and think what a thousand scientists could do by going out there and preaching the value of science. It would be revolutionary."
It may also help to embrace and promote why we conduct science in the first place. "It speaks to us as human beings who are curious about our place in the world and want to know how the world works," Khargonekar says. "Since the dawn of human civilization that fundamental drive to know and explore the frontier is part of what makes for a great society."
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