APS News


"Trilateral Collaborations" Key to Future Funding of Science

D. Allan Bromley's piece, "A Changing Environment for Graduate Programs in Science" (APS NEWS, October 1995) addresses the need for a new rationale for federal support of basic research from a fairly narrow perspective. He raises some interesting points regarding the relative roles of what he terms the "three institutional pillars," namely, research universities, federal laboratories, and industrial laboratories. While noting that all three are "in serious trouble," his suggestion that universities solve their funding problems by taking selected research from the national laboratories is not responsive to the underlying dynamics of public support for science, and could very well be destructive to the cause he espouses.

Although he mentioned Vannevar Bush's 1945 report, Science: The Endless Frontier, Bromley did not emphasize its importance in framing and justifying the reasons for federal support of science over the past 50 years. Many are recognizing that with the end of the Cold War, the Bush rational, anchored in the need for a strong national defense, has become inadequate. Furthermore, in the absence of a compelling alternative rationale, we should expect a fairly large decline in federal support for basic research, with the possible exceptions of those areas related to defense and health. This impending drop is rooted in the erosion of public support for science, and is likely to be more fundamental and longer-lasting than the present partisan struggles over budget priorities.

While there are many points of view on this issue, some common elements are emerging: (1) future support for much of basic science will be coupled to social, economic, ethical and political concerns; (2) better mechanisms must be developed to coordinate and integrate expertise needed to solve the increasingly complex problems facing society; and (3) considerable effort must go into improved communication with the public about science, not only its technical issues, but also its social impact.

To respond to these points and to articulate a new rationale, we recommend cooperation among the three institutional pillars, rather than seeking strategies for the survival of each separately. This recommendation is based on a strong record of collaborations between laboratories and universities. However, these collaborations only provide the experiential base for the new types of cooperation that will be needed. The future will require changes in the nature if not the quantity of such efforts, as well as greater integration of industrial participation. Bromley points out that recently the national laboratories have seen many of their original missions change. This is true, and they are discovering that their facilities, capabilities and approach are very well suited to the new challenges to science, and to their role in this new model.

The collaborative approach is attractive because it builds on the complementary strengths of each "pillar." Faculty seek collaborations with laboratories in large measure for access to capabilities and facilities that are not found at the university. In addition, laboratories are recognized for the ability to pull together multi-disciplinary teams, including universities and industry, and to address large, complex, and often long-term problems. Laboratory staff find collaborations attractive because research universities are acknowledged as repositories of expertise and excellence in a wide variety of separate disciplines that can enhance laboratory research on multi-disciplinary problems. Furthermore, the laboratories can provide the location, infrastructure, and culture for fostering multi-institution cooperation and graduate research education. First-rate research gets done, problems are solved rapidly, and the involved students gain experience in a growing modus operandi for treating complex research problems.

Any new rationale for support of science should include a "world view" of how to solve global problems associated with shared concerns of developed and developing countries, such as food and energy production, while maintaining health and preserving the environment and the peace. Addressing these will require the combined contributions of all three sectors: the expertise in both technical and social disciplines offered by the universities; the capabilities in solving complex problems and in forming multi-disciplinary teams offered by national laboratories; and industry's ability to transmit research results into the economic fabric of the global community.

The alternative to such cooperation is separate, divisive initiatives by each of the "pillars" to maintain support. Instead, it is time to recognize that a unified approach will have the most dramatic impact, and that trilateral cooperation may be essential to achieve a new rationale for science that is more fully integrated with the social, economic, ethical, and political concerns of a more scientifically knowledgeable public. This idea deserves continued discussion and experimentation.

Charles F. Keller
Institute of Geophysics & Planetary Physics, University of California/LANL
Rulon Lindford
University of California Coordinator for Science and Technology

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin