As the scientific research enterprise has expanded and evolved, new issues have arisen beyond those considered in Science, the Endless Frontier, said Gabriella González, professor of physics and astronomy at Louisiana State University, in the first of five symposium panels focused on specific topics. One such issue is the need for greater diversity among the people doing science. Diversity both increases the number of people attracted to science and spurs scientific creativity, she said. This “wasn’t as well understood in the past. It is much better understood now—but we are only halfway there.” Involving people from throughout U.S. society and throughout the world enables science “to get the best from projects and research worldwide.”
A diversified community of scientists needs to be built both from the bottom up and the top down, González argued. If the criteria for evaluating research are established by a homogeneous body, these criteria will not necessarily reflect the needs and capabilities of the people doing the research or the people meant to be the beneficiaries of the research.
Another great difference from the postwar period, González said, is that science is now much more collaborative and international than in Vannevar Bush’s era. Important science is still done by individuals supported by small grants, but other science requires large projects, large facilities, and interdisciplinary, often international, teams where data are freely shared. For example, González has been part of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration, which includes scientists from more than 100 institutions and 18 countries working together to detect gravitational waves and use them for astronomical discovery. “We are not well trained to do that as scientists,” she said. “We
“We are not well trained to do that as scientists. We need to have better training for doing team science, collaborative science, interdisciplinary science.”
—Gabriella González, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Louisiana State University
need to have better training for doing team science, collaborative science, interdisciplinary science.”
Seeing science as a global enterprise and as a source of national advantage are not incompatible, González noted. Most of the people educated in U.S. colleges and universities will remain in the United States and contribute to the progress and economic well-being of the United States. Others will return to their home countries and build a research enterprise from which all can benefit. “Even though the knowledge is universal, the consequences are local.”
Changes in the research enterprise have created other mismatches with foundational policy approaches, noted Alan Leshner, former CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The structures and reward systems of most research institutions and grant processes are still oriented toward individual investigators, even as more and more scientists are working on teams. Similarly, much of graduate education is directed toward becoming a professor, even though
the majority of graduate students will end up working outside academia. “We need more multidisciplinary institutions and mechanisms” to prepare students for a wide range of careers, Leshner said.
Many more students need to be trained to be what he and others have termed “convergence scientists”—people who are able to work with scientists and draw on knowledge from other disciplines. “We have to modernize graduate education to better serve the needs of modern science.” At the same time, as more and more countries invest in their own scientific capacity, good science is going on everywhere. “We have to train the next generation to be more multinational,” he said, “and we need to have systems in place that can support international science.”
Making such changes will require modifying how research and training are evaluated and funded, he said. “If we don’t adjust rapidly, the future may not be as productive as it could be.” Such cultural changes are hard, said Leshner, because “people hate change.” But people respond to incentives. For example, if researchers are rewarded for collaborative and interdisciplinary work, people will ask how to make those things happen. “As long as we only reward [the] number of papers in Science, Nature, Cell, or whatever journals you pick, or the number of grants you’ve gotten or the number of overall publications, nothing’s going to change.” Furthermore, these incentives need to apply throughout research careers. “If you don’t do it early, who’s going to learn how to do it later?”
As a final point, Leshner observed that science is increasingly impinging on human values that people consider to be part of their core norms, beliefs, and values, whether in the areas of embryonic stem cells, fetal tissue research, synthetic biology, or the teaching of evolution. The resulting tension between science and society is undermining trust in science and in what scientists do. This trend clearly points to the need to communicate and engage much better with the public (as discussed in the following chapter). “We need more scientists who are interested in that kind of engagement [and] are competent at it.”
Overcoming Limits on Research
Shobita Parthasarathy, professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, observed that the scientific enterprise Bush envisioned has been tremendously successful, but it has also proven to have limits. Life expectancy in the United States is lower than in other
industrialized countries. Maternal mortality is higher. Population groups distinguished by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status have massive health disparities. Americans are forgoing necessary treatments because of high drug prices. People feel that they have no voice over the direction of science and technology, despite living in a democracy. “And when citizens start to feel that their needs and priorities aren’t being considered, the results are increased disaffection and distrust,” Parthasarathy said.
She recommended expanding the already existing programs within NSF on the science of science policy and on science, technology, and society. Integrating the knowledge generated by these programs into research funding and regulatory decisions could help overcome the limits of the current research enterprise, she said.
Parthasarathy also recommended that the efforts to innovate for the benefit of marginalized communities be expanded. Many of these communities feel left behind by the scientific research enterprise. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and other international institutions have pioneered the idea of inclusive innovation, which involves partnerships with communities to develop technologies specifically to address the needs of those communities. “We can learn from these efforts and direct more attention to ensuring that the needs and priorities of the poor are met.”
Finally, she asked for a reexamination of how provisions for protecting intellectual property and promoting commercialization can best serve the public interest. These policies were developed with the idea that the inventor’s interest and the public interest are the same thing and that safeguarding both would facilitate access to technology, “but we now see that that’s often not the case,” Parthasarathy said. Steps such as the compulsory licensing of patents when research is federally funded need to be examined, she said. “If a patent holder prices her technology too high, compulsory licensing would allow the government to march in and ensure that others can manufacture and commercialize the technology.”
Universities and companies have incentives to innovate and to protect that innovation through patents, said Parthasarathy. But such incentives can limit access to technologies and drive innovation in ways that citizens do not necessarily want or appreciate. An alternative approach would be for universities to think differently about the revenue goals associated with patenting—an issue that is being debated around the world. Bush himself suggested that there would be cases where the government would need to intervene if the public interest and the inventor’s interest were misaligned, Parthasarathy pointed out. Universities also “need to reconsider their approaches and rethink the idea that patenting is always in the public interest.”
“And when citizens start to feel that their needs and priorities aren’t being considered, the results are increased disaffection and distrust.”
—Shobita Parthasarathy, Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan
The success of past policies does not mean that new policies could not boost productivity and benefit society. “We need sophisticated science and technology policies,” Parthasarathy said, “and we can take advantage here of the robust body of knowledge and expertise that we’ve developed over the last 75 years.”
“We need sophisticated science and technology policies and we can take advantage here of the robust body of knowledge and expertise that we’ve developed over the last 75 years.”
—Shobita Parthasarathy, Professor of Public Policy, University of Michigan