Recap: Senate Commerce Committee Underscores Importance of Federal R&D Investment

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Federal support for research and development efforts has been crucial to the start of many of our most important technology innovations and needs continuing public investment. This was emphasized in Thursday’s (7/17/2014) hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which focused on re-authorization of the America COMPETES Act to ensure federal funding for a number of R&D programs, including at the Department of Energy. The Senators present at the committee hearing were Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), Ranking Member John Thune (R-SD), and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA).

Senator Rockefeller opened the hearing by discussing the importance of federal seed funding for new technology to transform the internet and communications. He provided numerous examples of the success of federally funded research in these areas, most particularly the process of the development of the internet, underscoring that those innovations were the result of the incremental work by scientists who did not fear the risk of failure but embraced what can be learned from the process of experimentation–only possible with sustained federal investment.

Senator Thune more directly addressed the need for federal support of energy innovation, citing the importance of R&D funding for DOE’s Office of Science. “At some level there is broad bipartisan consensus that the federal government should play a significant role in promoting science research, especially basic research,” said Thune. Basic research can lay the foundation for applied research that eventually leads to breakthrough discoveries. The issue, then, is not a lack of support for research and development; there is a bipartisan consensus that having this foundation is important; it is the “nuts and bolts of federal funding” in terms of which areas the funding would be allocated.

Dr. Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, spoke as a witness at the hearing and agreed that government support for basic and applied research is crucial. But, he affirmed that the success of this support depends on a strong partnership between the research community and government which requires consistent application. “Validation of basic research takes a long time,” said Dr. Cerf as he explained the timeline for developing the internet. It takes years before many ideas will even begin to reach operational status, and sustainable businesses are not in a position to invest in this long term research. Another panelist, Dr. Neal Lane, Senior Fellow in Science and Technology Policy at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, spoke in agreement. Long-term planning “require[s] a level of cooperation and coordination we have not seen in many decades,” but is a key part of the process of innovation as broader goals are set and more specific coordination follows. Dr. Lane cites his work with AEIC Principal Norman Augustine at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where researchers focus on creating a knowledge base that encourages coordination between agencies and industries.

A statistical perspective on innovation outlook was provided by Dr. Stephen Feinberg, Maurice Falk University Professor of Statistics and Social Science at Carnegie Mellon University. Feinberg states that measures of impact are inadequate because the U.S. lacks the institutional capacity for evaluating the research enterprise. He providesd 3 pillars for successful innovation based on past performance: a talented and interconnected workforce, world class basic research in all areas of science, and federal funding that is stable, flexible, and predictable. Ms. Mariette DiChristina, Editor in Chief and Senior Vice President of Scientific American, also emphasized that there must be a national strategy to approaching R&D efforts as it becomes more essential to American growth. She recommends typical funding grants that would enhance the “nation’s ability to supply energy.”

The webcast of the hearing along with more information and transcripts can be found on the committee’s website.