Increases In Research Productivity Are Not 'Rocket Science'

The president and his men pay ritual homage to science and technology, to be sure. In March, donning electricians' gloves and hauling cables, Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore participated in California's "Netday" effort to give students access to the Internet. More important, last November Gore and the president's science adviser, John Gibbons, sketched out the grandiose federal plan for one of the nation's most promising but challenged fields in the report "Biotechnology for the 21st Ce

Henry Miller
May 26, 1996
The president and his men pay ritual homage to science and technology, to be sure. In March, donning electricians' gloves and hauling cables, Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore participated in California's "Netday" effort to give students access to the Internet.

More important, last November Gore and the president's science adviser, John Gibbons, sketched out the grandiose federal plan for one of the nation's most promising but challenged fields in the report "Biotechnology for the 21st Century: New Horizons." It presented a sweeping vision: "Expand research to discover, characterize, modify, and control the genetics and biochemical products . . . of terrestrial and marine organisms. . . . Apply the tools of modern biotechnologies to problems in agriculture, the environment, and manufacturing. . . . Strengthen and enhance facilities, repositories, databases, reference standards, and human resources . . . ."

But wish lists are easy. Conspicuously absent from the report were any new funding sources or strategies. It was impossible to read the report without wondering whether Gore, Gibbons, and their staffs are aware of the battle to balance the federal budget.

When it comes to the nation's biomedical research enterprise, Congress has put its money where its mouth is, while Clinton and his minions have only paid it lip service.

Congress gave a hefty 5.7 percent increase to the National Institutes of Health, the main source of support for United States universities' biomedical research. That's $175 million more than the Clinton administration requested. While Congress actively supports liberal funding of investigator-initiated academic research, the president repeatedly emphasizes the federal government's own "critical role to play" in performing and directing research and development. Moreover, he derides budget cutters when they find needed funding by trimming ineffective technology programs at the Department of Commerce and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The FY 1997 budget proposal from the Clinton administration offers more of the same. While small increases appear to keep NIH and the National Science Foundation ahead of inflation, buried in the fine print are projections of sizable reductions in extramural grants, and in many science and technology programs at other agencies. Excluding the funding earmarked for refurbishing NIH's on-campus clinical center, NIH's actual budget increase is only 1.3 percent, well below the rate of inflation.

The Clinton administration's own budget projects substantial cuts in the late 1990s in a number of science and technology programs. According to an analysis in Science (A. Lawler, 271:1796, 1996), for example, "The Administration's figures show a decrease in spending, from $17.9 billion in 1997 to $14.6 billion in 2000, in a broad budget category called general science, space, and technology," which includes most of the funding for NSF, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and civilian research within the Department of Energy. "Within this category, programs focused strictly on science and basic research would decrease from $4.5 billion in 1997 to $4 billion in 2000, according to the Clinton budget projections," the analysis continues. It concludes that the long-term outlook for most science and technology agencies is "unambiguously ominous."

The closer one looks, the more dire the implications. The Clinton administration's largess is targeted to agencies that historically have funded the lowest-quality and most applied research. For example, some of the largest proposed increases are for the Department of Commerce (up 16.9 percent, to $4.3 billion) and EPA (up 22.8 percent, to $7 billion). In 1995, EPA was harshly criticized by a National Academy of Sciences panel for its low scientific standards and lack of peer review-problems that more money alone does not solve.

The president misunderstands the nature of the game: The winner is not the one who spends the most but who produces the most.

Enhanced productivity is a challenging goal but not, as they say, rocket science. There are a number of no-cost strategies the president could adopt that would increase productivity and one-up his legislative critics in the process.

For starters, he could limit government support only to those highly meritorious projects that are unlikely to be undertaken by the private sector. He could craft incentives to increase private-sector participation in early stages of research. He could enhance the overall quality of government-sponsored research by subjecting all proposals to a scientific peer-review process to ensure quality and merit.

Currently, for example, many clinical trials of drugs and vaccines are funded by NIH, while development of medical diagnostic gadgets is supported by the Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology. Commercial, product-oriented research can and should be underwritten by the private sector. The federal government should be spending its increasingly limited money on basic research that creates new knowledge.

Too often, federal agencies parcel out funds according to considerations of political correctness or patronage. In support of "alternative medicine," for example, $5 million has been earmarked for dubious studies of shark cartilage as a cancer treatment. Rigorous peer review by expert scientific and engineering panels could put an end to these abuses and help channel support on the basis of more appropriate criteria.

The federal government can do more to promote interdisciplinary research that stimulates synergy among scientific and engineering fields. Preference should be given to funding for graduate and postdoctoral training in interdisciplinary research.

Government agencies should assign a high priority to research on basic mechanisms that have widespread scientific interest and applicability. This would position federal research investment, appropriately, upstream of private-sector investment. For example, shrinking federal monies would be better spent on studying fundamental biological mechanisms that explain how some crops resist pests, frost, and drought, rather than on research to introduce virus resistance into a particular potato variety. Yet in his 1995 State of the Union speech, the president vowed that with the line-item veto-a reality as of January 1997-he would get rid of "unnecessary spending" like a project that targets "$1 million to study stress in plants."

Does no one in the White House understand that such research will enable America's farmers to reduce reliance on agricultural chemicals and marginally effective 18th-century technology such as smudge pots to prevent frost damage to fruit? Thomas Jefferson did, noting, "The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture."

In order to achieve greater impact from the vast reservoir of federal set-asides, the government needs to redefine the criteria for grants under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. More funding should go to early-stage research that provides "proof of principle." SBIR grants are now an easy source of funds for mediocre applied research proposals that often are concerned more with product development than accumulating new information.

Priority should be given to projects that leverage federal funds through university-industry research partnerships. A model for this kind of approach is the nascent Strategic Targets for Alliances in Research (STAR) project at the University of California's systemwide biotech program. The STAR project matches state funds with private-sector contributions to support early-stage collaboration on biotechnology research between university and industry scientists.

Clinton certainly could do more to reduce unwarranted costs and disincentives caused by government regulation of research. Biotechnology regulations at the Department of Agriculture and EPA focus inexplicably on research with organisms crafted with the most precise, state-of-the-art recombinant DNA techniques. By contrast, the regulations exempt research with phenotypically similar or even identical organisms crafted with cruder, less precise, less predictable techniques.

What's needed are expert panels, convened through the nonpartisan National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine, to review the scientific basis for promising but arguably overregulated research fields such as human gene therapy, agricultural biotechnology, and environmental bioremediation. These panels could advise agencies on what really warrants governmental oversight. "Triggers" to regulation should be based on the scientifically measurable and risk-based characteristics of products, rather than on the use of one or another technique in their manufacture.

It hasn't been easy to persuade federal agencies to replace outmoded regulatory "design standards" with more effective and responsive "performance standards." But it is essential. Regulatory agencies should specify the outcome or standard that must be met to ensure safety, but they should not dictate a narrow spectrum of "acceptable" technologies or techniques. For example, it is more sensible-and a greater stimulus to innovation and commercialization-to specify that water discharged from a research facility can have no more than a certain concentration of bacteria than to impose a rigid requirement that it be heated to a certain temperature or be passed through a particular kind of filter.

Taken together, these kinds of refinements in science policy are not only rational and reasonable, but also can be accomplished rapidly and don't cost anything. What could be more alluring to a politician? As journalist Bob Woodward has observed, nothing appeals more to Clinton than a "costless" decision, "a chance to have it both ways, to eat ice cream and still lose weight" (R. Woodward, The Agenda, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994).

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Clinton administration's science and technology policy has been uninspired. Gore, the administration's technology czar, has been an intransigent critic of research fields that don't fit his parochial and ideological view.

Gore seems more eager to regulate research than stimulate it. Recall his exhortation to Congress while he was a senator to mandate unnecessary regulation of biotechnology research: "If you don't do it, you know somebody will" (A. Gore, Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, 5:19-30, Fall 1991). EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Agriculture continue to pursue unnecessary regulation with impunity.

The president's science adviser should be an advocate for the research community and for science as a basis for public policy. But Gibbons does not understand that rhetoric neither runs a research lab nor lightens the regulatory load on working scientists. His unwillingness to advocate the interest of the scientific community seems to be a throwback to his previous incarnation as director of the now-defunct Office of Technology Assessment, when his staff would provide to Congress "scientific" reports whose conclusions generally reinforced politicians' agendas. An example is New Developments in Biotechnology-Field-Testing Engineered Organisms: Genetic and Ecological Issues (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988), which was strongly influenced by the radical ecology community. The report said biotechnology was so fundamentally novel that case-by-case review was required for all field trials for the foreseeable future. This was at odds with worldwide scientific consensus about biotechnology's potential risks. Gibbons not only approved but also vigorously defended the report, which may be the worst produced on biotechnology by U.S. government agencies in two decades.

Henry Miller The U.S. needs an aggressive science policy that will restore our research infrastructure and preserve our leadership in science, technology, and economic growth. Increased federal support of basic research in both the biological and physical sciences would be a valuable and wise investment, but that is unlikely in the prevailing climate of cost-cutting and budget-balancing. Under such austerity, an effective science policy requires thoughtful, revenue-neutral strategies. But the president and his men seem unable to grasp the problem, let alone devise a solution.

Henry I. Miller is the Robert Wesson Fellow of Scientific Philosophy and Public Policy at the Hoover Institution, a consulting professor at Stanford University's Institute for International Studies, and an adviser to the American Council on Science and Health.