Foresight Update 14

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A publication of the Foresight Institute

Foresight Update 14 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5


Policy Watch

compiled by Jamie Dinkelacker

The United States and Britain have agreed to contribute to the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), the largely Japanese-financed research organization based in Strasbourg. The HFSP has announced the outcome of its third round of research awards. The trustees "comprising two members from each of G7 countries, the European commission and Switzerland" last week approved 37 research grants worth $24 million over three years, and a further 128 two-year postdoctoral fellowships each worth $42,000 per year. Reseach proposals are required to be interdisciplinary and to involve international collaboration.

One of the postdoc recipients is Jan Hoh, a speaker at the Second Foresight Conference on Molecular Nanotechnology last November. Dr. Hoh will work at the Muller Institute at the University of Basel, where he will use atomic force microscopy to investigate biomembranes and ion channels.

The immediate problem is that research proposals far outnumber awards. In this year's round, roughly 87% of the applications were refused. The only solution appears to be a larger budget. (Nature 356:277)

Federal contracts that require researchers to obtain government approval before publishing or reporting preliminary findings are unconstitutional, the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia ruled in late September. As a result, the court ordered the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) to return to Stanford University a $1.5 million contract for human trial of a "partial artificial heart." Now, NHLBI's parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), has appealed that decision.

The clause in question barred the researchers from publishing any preliminary findings without first obtaining permission from their contract officer, whose decision would be final and binding. HHS maintained that the clause served to prevent Stanford from releasing findings that "could create erroneous conclusions which might threaten public health or safety if acted upon" or that might have "adverse effects on ... the federal agency." In his opinion, Judge Harold H. Green called these standards "impermissibly vague." For instance, he asked: What constitutes an adverse effect on a federal agency? "Who will decide whether the conclusions drawn by Stanford are erroneous--the scientist or contracting officer?" (Science News 140:318)

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the sale of certain genetically-engineered foodstuffs without extensive laboratory testing being required before they are available on supermarket shelves. Foremost among these will be tomatoes genetically altered so as not to rot so easily, thus allowing tomatoes to be picked later, and remain fresh longer. (CNN May 26, 1992)

Nature reports that superconductivity and nanofabrication research are being phased out as part of a broader shift away from condensed matter physics. In its place will be more software technology. Squeezed by economics and a corporate preoccupation with the bottom line, three of the U.S. largest companies doing basic physics research are cutting back operations and reducing their research staff. Bellcore (Bell Communications Research) and IBM are shifting their research programs to applied research, a move that has already closed laboratories and left dozens of researchers looking for jobs. (Nature 356:184)

Robert Waterston, at the Washington University in St. Louis, and John Sulston of the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge--the two principal collaborators in the $6 million worm genome project--say that it is now time to move to the next step in the sequencing effort with the development of an advanced sequence technology and eventual production automation. As a highly repetitive task, large-scale gene sequencing is tailor made for a commercial enterprise. Further, moving this sort of "production line" work out of academic laboratories frees university resources for basic research. (Nature 355:483)

Presidential Science Advisor D. Allen Bromley told members of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology that global change research has "matured" to the point where it should place greater emphasis on accessing the results of the research already carried out. The 1993 budget proposal recently submitted to Congress contains five presidential research initiatives--science and mathematics education, biotechnology, high performance computing, and advanced materials processing--in addition to the global change effort. These represent the combined research budgets of several government agencies in a particular field knitted together by an overall research strategy. The initiatives on biotechnology and advanced materials are new this year. (Nature 355:578)

In Korea, government bureaucrats are seriously considering the introduction of a "science tax." Although such a tax is unprecedented, the general scheme of accessing taxes for specific purposes is well established. In the past, the South Korean government has put extra taxes on corporations and its citizens to raise funds for defense. So why not, the bureaucrats ask, have a tax to aid Korea's bid to catch up with the technology of Japan and the West. (Nature 354:177)

For the last several years in the United States, a battle has been waged between Big Science and Little Science. Constituencies of scientists and engineers, politicians, and government officials argue on behalf of their own needs. Each cites lofty goals: preservation of national freedoms, global competitiveness, international prestige, and boosts in our quality of life, which, they assert, depend directly on the continued investment of public funds in their own perspective and brand of science and technology. The good news is that both camps are probably right. The bad news is that in all this discussion, few speak for the R&D engineer--the person who can develop an idea uncovered in a laboratory to the point of proving its feasibility.

Many good ideas that could contribute to economic growth are today stuck in the library, ignored for lack of funds. In this budgetary shoot-out, little thought is given to the R&D engineer, whether in government, on campus, or in the corporate environment. Few champions exist for his/her essential contribution: exploratory development. These folks are the ones that examine the most promising basic research and determine whether it can be integrated, packaged, and manufactured economically.

Arguing for Little Science, the National Academy of Science's president, Frank Press, has called for setting tougher priorities for Big Science projects, while increasing support for Little Science to safeguard the country's scientific infrastructure. Leon Lederman, former director of Big Science's Fermilab, brandished the results of a poll indicating that university scientists--primarily the Little Science people--never felt more financially strapped. (IEEE Spectrum, December 1991:14)

In a similar vein, in 1990 the U.S. government and private sector spent over $600 for research and development for every man, woman, and child in the country. Americans spend $30,000 to support each scientist and engineer. Never in history has a research endeavor been as well supported in any nation.

Increases in government and private sector spending, generous by any standard, have brought total R&D funding to $150 billion as of 1990, but have not been able to sustain the increases in the R&D community's population. This situation is somewhat at variance with the conventional view of supply and demand for scientists and engineers, which projects that the United States will face a mounting "shortfall" of gargantuan proportion--400,000 to 700,000 scientists and engineers cumulatively by the year 2011, based on NSF estimates. Care must be taken, however, in equating the word shortfall with shortage: the first implies a reduction in production rates, the other a demand that cannot be satisfied. Although we may in the future encounter shortages in the total science and engineering work force, there clearly is no shortage today of Ph.D. independent investigators in academia. The shortage is one of money to support academic research, not of scientists and engineers capable of conducting it.

There are just too many science and engineering investigators chasing too few dollars. As a result, research proposal success rates have fallen significantly. At the National Institutes of Health, less than one in four applications actually receive support. And not only is the success rate falling, but the peer review system--the underpinning of the competitive grant process--is under stress. With the supply and demand for funds seriously mismatched, it is not surprising to see (1) pleas for more funds, (2) calls for a speeding of the proposal treadmill--and a reduction of its adverse effect on productivity of science and engineering research--and (3) the growth of political lobbying by scientific groups, each seeking its own ends in a tight national budget environment. The key issue is whether the U.S. is prepared to adopt policies that will assure a favorable position in the intensifying international technology race. (Issues in Science and Technology Spring 1991:35)

Japan's powerful Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) is at last taking its first step into genome research. In a few weeks, the biochemical industry division within MITI will form a committee to coordinate various small projects involving DNA analysis and to consider a project to sequence the genomes of industrially useful microorganisms. The eventual aim is a permanent government center for DNA analysis. The committee will try to coordinate three small MITI projects under the jurisdiction of the biochemical industry division: (1) a project within Japan's huge fifth generation computer project that is developing computer systems to handle the vast amounts of data arising from genome research; (2) the application to nanoscale technologies, such as the scanning tunneling microscope, to an analysis of DNA at a new interdisciplinary research center in Tsukuba; and (3) a small project within MITI's huge global environment research program to isolate and develop photosynthetic microorganisms to absorb carbon dioxide. (Nature 356:181)

U.S. scientists are urging their government to fund hundreds of small collaborations with their Russian counterparts with part of $400 million set aside for the destruction of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union. Under the plan, conceived during a two day workshop held earlier this month at the National Academy of Sciences, those scientists who already hold federal research grants would identify partners in the former Soviet Union and provide them with money for vitally needed materials and equipment, visits to the United States, and collaborative research. "If we wait too long, they'll by dead," says one participant, "I'd hoped that we could do something by May or June, certainly no later than six months from now."

The proposal would keep active in the former Soviet Union those civilian scientists whose ability to carry out research has been severely curtailed by the political and economic chaos in the various republics. The goal is both to keep Russian scientists productive and to strengthen U.S. science by tapping into a rich new source of available talent. The program would draw as much as $10 million from the fund created last fall by the U.S. Congress to help the former Soviet Union to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and to employ those who built those weapons. (Nature 356:182)

Foresight Update 14 - Table of Contents


MITI Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS) Project

A Japanese proposal for international cooperation in international manufacturing research is forcing a reevaluation of U.S. technology policy. The Industrial Machinery Division of the Ministry of International Trade and Industry proposed the Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS) Project. The original proposal, now substantially modified, called for a ten-year, multilateral, cooperative research effort in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Funding--originally projected at $1 billion--was to be derived from private as well as public sources; Japan would contribute 60% of the cost and the United States and Europe would split the rest. The details of the proposal reveal why it has attracted so much attention.

In defining intelligent manufacturing systems as the focus of the project, IMS's sponsors cast a very broad net. The term "system" denotes the integration of technologies and human skills across the entire range of corporate activities relating to manufacturing--from order-booking, to design, to production and marketing. (An "intelligent" system--or technology--is defined here as one that monitors its own internal processes and reacts to internal stimuli.)

The proposal includes a comprehensive list of topics to be investigated in each area. International teams will pursue projects jointly, with the aim of reducing redundancy in national research portfolios. Further, the project seeks to harmonize worldwide standards for intelligent manufacturing technology. Early on, U.S. firms and universities responded to a MITI solicitation by submitting more than a dozen proposals for IMS related research funding. MITI retained the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in Michigan to act as the project's secretariat in the United States.

Government officials viewed the IMS as proceeding too far, too fast

These events surprised and dismayed many U.S. observers--particularly government officials--who viewed the project as proceeding too far, too fast. Two points were particularly sensitive. First, IMS was moving forward without the kind of government-to-government negotiation customary in international projects. Second, various institutions were offering Japanese interests access to a wide range of U.S. technology without--some felt--having considered the cumulative impact of their actions on the nation's competitive position.

The potential for conflict was exacerbated by cultural differences in approaching new projects. The typical Japanese approach in both public programs and business contracts is initially to sketch institutional and programmatic commitments with a broad brush. Details are worked out on an ad hoc basis as the enterprise matures. The U.S. tendency runs in essentially the opposite direction: Fully-scoped programs are defined at the outset. In the early spring of 1990, the United States took official action by invoking the authority of the U.S.-Japan Science and Technology agreement--an umbrella for cooperation between the two countries.

The independent American proposals to MITI for funding and the designation of the SME as secretariat were withdrawn accordingly. The Department of Commerce, designated as lead agency under the agreement, then began a domestic and international discussion process. Throughout this evolution, the principal assumptions on which the system had long been based--that the centralized, competitive research can be wasteful, that diffusion of technology throughout industry ultimately benefits all firms; that Japan has much to learn from abroad; and that government and industry must work cooperatively--have never been discarded. The IMS proposal incorporates the traditional paradigm, adapting it to suit today's realities. In an effort of such scope and magnitude it is obvious to the Japanese that all sectors--government, academia, and the leading industrial firms--must make common cause.

Accustomed to viewing the West as the source of technology and realizing that there are still technical areas in which the West leads, Japanese participants in IMS naturally seek access to that outside expertise. Domestic pressures have forced Japan to reorient its science and technology establishment around two broad new themes: internationalization and innovation. Long insulated from foreign influences, Japan is now trying to promote a genuinely international culture across a wide spectrum of areas from consumer markets to art and science. One important aspect of this transformation is the more equitable exchange of ideas, technology, and people from within and outside Japan. By welcoming foreigners into the Japanese technical establishment and underwriting research abroad, IMS could contribute significantly to this movement.

The Japanese economy has evolved faster than expected from a capital intensive to a research intensive system; research expenditures exceeded capital purchase for the first time in 1986. The future of Japan's manufacturing sector depends on automation to compensate for anticipated labor shortages: the average age of the population is increasing in Japan faster than in any other major industrial power. For these reasons, Japanese manufacturing is moving offshore.

American attitudes toward IMS reflect four distinct perspectives: internationalists emphasize the integration of the U.S. into the global economy; the technical community focuses on research agendas and funding; domestic interests emphasize the need to maintain U.S. competitiveness; and the policy community highlights public-private dialogue about technology.

The U.S. policy community--a collection of scholars, advocates, and makers of technology policy--is a uniquely self-conscious entity, simultaneously developing new policy initiatives and critiquing its own progress. From this perspective, the value of IMS as a policy development process is even greater than its long term promise as an R&D project. IMS has given rise to new policy-oriented groups, notably the ad hoc industry steering group, and by casting the Department of Commerce as the lead agency in this instance, it has established new bureaucratic patterns.

Nowhere has the U.S. failure to access and profit from new technology been more marked than in its interactions with Japan. In part, this has been due to barriers to foreign participation in research consortia, but most of these have now fallen. From the Japanese perspective, the IMS project is intended to go one step further, opening the door to its domestic technical apparatus. Having pushed so long for just such an invitation, Western interests will suffer a setback in Japan if they fail to respond. As of yet, there is still no federal entity that possesses both the authority and the wherewithal for managing international exchanges. Such exchanges are likely to proliferate, not decline; many of them may be modeled on IMS.

Instead of reinventing the wheel with every exchange, the United States should capitalize on what it has learned throughout the IMS process and create an office--most appropriately in the Department of Commerce--to gather and disseminate information about international technology-development projects, coordinate positions, and negotiate agreements. Whether in sports or in scientific research, players need to know how to play the game before they enter the fray. To compete in the arena of international R&D, the U.S. needs to develop two critical capabilities: a clear and effective domestic technology policy, and honing the skill at capturing the benefits of foreign technology. The U.S. must be willing to design and invest in new programs and policies to achieve these critical capabilities. (Issues in Science and Technology Fall 1991:49-53)

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) took the first public step in a "strategic plan" for research funding when it revealed the draft of a year's effort recently at a meeting in San Antonio, Texas. The plan is being written to justify arguments for greatly increased federal funding for NIH but, as NIH Director Bernadine Healy expects, it will also bring into the open a number of fundamental and contentious questions about the structure of the NIH enterprise itself.

Strategic planning also raises, inevitably, the notion that some areas of research are so important, or intellectually interesting, that they deserve funding increases at a rate that is higher than others. Healy is sympathetic to this view, but the biomedical community as a whole--favoring the strategy of every discipline on its own--has never successfully reached a consensus on research priorities.

The scientists cum peer reviewers--perhaps genetically programmed to eschew anything that smacks of "target" research--arrived in San Antonio in an apprehensive mood, exacerbated by the fact that NIH officials were so slow to get background documents out to meeting participants. As the debate wore on some consensus became evident. It was generally agreed that the idea of strategic planning is sound and should not be abandoned just because it got off to a bad start. (Nature 355:573)

The U.S. President's recent 1993 budget proposal released in January called for an 18% overall increase next year to the National Science Foundation (NSF), and a 21% boost in its basic research funds. The total budget for all the federal government science and technology programs would grow from $74.6 billion to $76.6 billion--an increase of less than 3%. That is below the 3.3% inflation rate that the administration projects for 1993. But there is a good reason why the overall increase is so small: defense R&D--which currently accounts for 60% of total government expenditure on science and technology--would get only a modest increment.

Civilian R&D, in contrast is slated to grow by 7%, from $28.3 billion to $30.4 billion. And within those totals, basic research would climb to $14.3 billion, an increase of 8%. According to the presidential initiatives, selected areas of both Big Science and Small Science see significant increases. These initiatives call for a 24% increase in global change research up to a total of $1.3 billion. High performance computing and communication increases 23% to $803 million, while advanced materials grows 10% to a proposed total of $1.8 billion. Biotechnology is slated to grow 7% to over $4 billion. And math and science education is also projected with a 7% growth topping the $2 billion mark.

In terms of Big Science, the Superconducting Supercollider received a 34% increase to $650 million and the Strategic Defense Initiative received a 31% increase to $5.4 billion, the largest single item in the big science scorecard. (Science 255:673) [Editor's note: As we go to press, continued funding for the Supercollider is in doubt.]

In a Science essay titled "Pork Barrel 'Science'" it is mentioned that the polite term used by the U.S. Congress is "earmarking," but whether one calls it earmarking or pork barrel, the article goes on to say it is a reprehensible activity practiced by a few powerful members of Congress. Moreover, it has reached a point where the negative impact on scientific projects is very real, as is apparent from the following excerpt of remarks by George Brown, chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. "In the NASA area, I am certain that my colleagues recall the debate earlier this year over the space station. The debate was, in many ways, a historic one. We were asked to make a major decision on whether we could afford to continue the space station when so many other programs were in dire need of funding. These included space science programs, housing programs, environmental programs, and veterans programs. We voted to continue the station, and there can be no doubt that these and many other meritorious programs have not received the funding they needed.

"Yet the conference report contains over $100 million in projects that were never requested by the administration, never authorized, and never discussed on the floor. We were never given a choice between a station and those projects. These appear in the NASA portion of the budget, but some can scarcely even be called space projects.

"The conferees generously set aside $40 million for a vast variety of brick and mortar projects in West Virginia. These include $22.5 million in funding for a national technology transfer center in Morgantown, WV. The proponent envisions that persons inquiring about technological advances that are taking place through government projects must write to West Virginia for the answer. It includes $7.5 million for continued funding for the Wheeling, WV, Jesuit College. I don't believe that anyone in Congress or in NASA knows what this will be used for.

"It includes continued funding for a consortia of universities and consultants in the Saginaw, Michigan, area which has somehow emerged as the center for environmental research in the past three years ... NASA itself has little idea where this funding is going. It includes $20 million for the Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research in Baltimore. I stress marine research, not space research...

"The conference report terminates a vast variety of NASA scientific projects such as the space infrared telescope, ... the orbiting solar observatory ... and the flight telerobotic servicer. These are all projects that scientists have spent decades planning and developing. These are all projects that could be funded with a little more restraint on the part of the conferees ..."

With regard to the pork barrel sites mentioned by Representative Brown, it is no coincidence that the chairs of the three relevant appropriations committees come from West Virginia, Maryland, and Michigan. (Science 254:1433)

A committee of the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences has identified several technologies predicted to be important in the U.S. Army within the next 30 years. The Strategic Technologies for Army Report (STAR) targets, in particular, key technology areas for ground warfare. Biotechnology played an important role in the report. A subcommittee suggests seven areas of biotechnology with the "highest payoff," including:

Admiral David Jeremiah, Vice Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed the need to invest in nanotechnology in a recent speech to the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. He also called for a new technical education process, citing the lack of knowledge about nanotechnology among senior naval officers as an example of why change is needed. (AIAA Convention, Naval Training Center, San Diego, CA, 11Feb92)

Foresight Update 14 - Table of Contents | Page1 | Page2 | Page3 | Page4 | Page5

From Foresight Update 14, originally published 15 July 1992.

Foresight thanks Dave Kilbridge for converting Update 14 to html for this web page.