Summary of Sessions on “American Science & America’s Future” at the APS March and April 2013 Meetings

Pushpa Bhat

FPS organized one session each at the March and April meetings on the general topic of “American Science & America’s Future,” following an overwhelmingly positive response for a similar session at the April meeting in 2012. The sessions were organized and moderated by Pushpa Bhat (Fermilab), FPS Chair. The main focus of the session was the latest report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science & Technology (PCAST), entitled “Transformation & Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise.” I summarize the two sessions here.

The March meeting session was held on Wednesday, March 20, 2013. The speakers at this session were, Congressmen Bill Foster (IL- 11), Rush Holt (NJ-12) and Randy Hultgren (IL-14), Dr. Maxine Savitz, a PCAST member and Vice-Chair of the National Academy of Engineers, and Prof. Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT. Pushpa Bhat opened the session with some introductory remarks. She showed graphs on the trend of Federal funding over the past several decades for various fields of science and their dependence on major world events. She noted that the federal investment in R&D has decreased steadily and considerably over the past decades, from nearly 2% of the GDP at its peak in 1963 to ~0.67% now. The investment in R&D by the private sector has grown with the GDP, to keep the overall R&D investment around 2.5% of the GDP. However, the investment of the private sector is primarily in R&D for product improvement and not in basic science research or early applied research. It would make a huge impact on the science enterprise (and therefore technology and economy) if the federal investment went up by at least another 0.5% of the GDP. The PCAST report also calls for maintaining a total R&D investment of 3%.

The central question for the session and for the panel to address was — how do we strengthen and enhance the Science & Technology enterprise in the United States so that it can successfully compete, prosper, and provide strategic leadership in the 21st century global society?

Congressman Bill Foster and Rush Holt, addressed the audience in a specially recorded 16 minute long video message for the session. Congressman Holt said, “We are trying to bring some sanity to the budget. The budget that is in front of us today does not take a very long term perspective, does not treat research very well.” He said that rather than investing in infrastructure, education and research, the mentality is one of austerity. “It is not a happy time, not a good time for anyone who cares about the future.” Congressman Foster said, “Something that both Rush and I are concerned about is the fuzzy thinking that is happening on the Hill with respect to the pro-growth policy. Both parties claim that they have pro-growth agenda. But, it is very important to understand that a lot of things you invest in do not have an immediate return. Things like basic scientific research, things like education, have a return on investment that accrues not in the next election cycle, but in the next decade, or decades hence. So this is the argument that Rush and I are making until we are blue in the face.”

Rep. Holt also emphasized that it is a well-studied and well-known fact that the returns from investment in scientific research are huge, and the applications to societal needs are numerous. He mentioned that, for example, the digital library studies funded by the National Science Foundation resulted in Google. And by cutting down on investments in science research, he said, “we are eating some of our seed corn!”

Finally, Congressmen Foster and Holt called on scientists to consider serving in the public sphere, and stressed its importance. Rep. Foster urged more scientists to run for office, and Rep. Holt appealed that each of us should carve out a bit of our time to work in the public sphere — that if we are not inclined to run for office, we should be engaged as lobbyists or advisers in the policy-making process.

Congressman Randy Hultgren, who represents Illinois’ 14th district, which includes Fermilab, spoke via a conference call from Capitol Hill and addressed the audience at the session. He too emphasized the importance of basic science research, and of the important responsibility of the federal government to support basic science research and education. He talked about his efforts in Congress to push the agenda for investing in science, and about the bipartisan House Science & National Labs Caucus that he formed in December 2012. He said that the new caucus would focus on reinforcing federal investment in scientific research and national laboratories, as well as raise awareness about the role national labs play in long-term economic growth of the country.

After the addresses from Capitol Hill, Dr. Savitz took to the podium and spoke about the PCAST report. She opened her talk by saying that inventiveness and scientific curiosity are part of the American character. “According to a 2009 Pew poll, Americans think that government investments in scientific research pay off in the long run,” she added. She showed a number of graphs indicating that the GDP has grown exponentially in the past century, and that R&D has grown proportionately. She discussed and summarized the specific actions that PCAST has recommended: (1) Total R & D expenditures should be 3 percent of GDP, (2) Congress and the Executive Branch to find mechanisms to increase stability and predictability of Federal research funding and (3) a research and experimentation tax credit be made permanent.

Prof. Neil Gershenfeld of MIT talked about the digital revolution that could usher in a new era of advanced manufacturing, of “making anything anywhere” with digital fabrication. The FabLab (fabrication laboratory) is a small scale lab or workshop that enables digital fabrication; the first one was created at MIT and now there are about one hundred of them around the world, including some in remote locales in developing countries. This FabLab digital revolution will empower individuals and small local communities to create things relevant to their environments. There is legislation being introduced by Bill Foster to create a national lab which is a network of all the FabLabs in the US.

The talks were followed by a lively discussion with Dr. Savitz and Prof. Gershenfeld with moderator and audience participation.

The panel session at the April meeting on Monday, April 15 in Denver, Co had Prof. Jim Gates (University of Maryland), a member of PCAST, Prof. Bob Zimmer (President of University of Chicago), Prof. Lisa Randall (Harvard University) and Dr. Kate Kirby (Executive Officer of APS), as speakers/panelists.

After opening remarks and introductions by Pushpa Bhat, Jim Gates talked about PCAST, its members, its charge and activities. He outlined the President’s American Innovation strategy, which includes investing in Research & Innovation, STEM Education, strengthening physical infrastructure, clean energy and Advanced Fuel Technology. Prof. Gates said that the report calls for a long-term, well planned investment in science, and providing incentives to industry to support R&D. Prof. Gates said, “The challenges are great and the path forward is murky. We have to recapture the American dream, and the federal government has to be involved.”

Prof. Zimmer, President of the University of Chicago that runs both Argonne National Lab and Fermilab, talked about the partnerships between universities, national labs and the government. He discussed the mission of these three entities — the research universities are driven by scientific discoveries, the national labs driven by providing infrastructure for big research projects and as national user facilities, and the federal government provides support for science at the universities and national labs because science when there is not enough money, then the relationships between the entities could get strained, especially between the universities and national labs. Prof. Zimmer then discussed the case of high energy physics in the U.S. and the role of the community and leadership. He offered advice to the community that it is our responsibility to convince the federal government what we are doing is part of government’s business.

Dr. Kate Kirby talked about the important role APS is playing in getting the message of the science community across to the government, especially to the Congress and to the public, and in fostering our future scientists. The message is that our leadership in science has meant transformational technology, and good high tech jobs. She said that APS has been conveying the message recently, through events such as “deconstructing the iPad” on Capitol Hill, which clearly demonstrates how research of 20-30 years ago contributes directly to the technology of today. APS has also been instrumental in having the members connect to their congressional representatives. It is also raising its profile in the industrial sector where most of our young scientists go.

Prof. Randall discussed her thoughts about communicating science to the public. She said that despite the mood of pessimism, this is a very good time for science and an exciting era for physics. Prof. Randall said it was heartening to see how the Higgs discovery was received by people around the globe. While it is challenging to identify the economic benefits, she said we could try to justify how we benefit as a country from doing such science. She pointed out that our role in the Higgs discovery was much bigger than perceived in the U.S.; the head of the CMS collaboration, Joe Incandela is an American, and there are a large number of American scientists involved. Randall also stressed that big projects answer big questions and inspires people. She closed her remarks, by saying, “it is very important for scientists to communicate, to the public and to the government — not everyone needs to do it but at least some have to do it.”

A lively moderated discussion followed with the panel and audience on communications to the public, policy makers and the broader science community on the value of basic science research and value of fundamental discoveries.

Pushpa Bhat

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.