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Less-than-risky business?

Critics say science in the U.S. has become safer, with demoralized researchers less likely to "swing for the fences."

The United States is not boldly going where no one has gone before.

That, in a nutshell, is the concern of observers who worry that research efforts in the United States are too safe and therefore less likely to lead to dramatic breakthroughs.

Declining numbers of U.S. doctorates in science and engineering and fewer foreign students have generated headlines in recent months, with reactions differing widely on root causes. But even some who disagree on causes share a sense that something is amiss about the actual experiments that graduate students and scientists are carrying out these days.

"We have developed an incentive system for young scientists that is much too risk-averse," Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a speech last year. Alberts, whose organization advises the federal government on scientific and technical matters, was basing his comments on biological research. But, he said, "I suspect that similar considerations also apply in many other areas of science."

To be sure, the U.S. system of conducting research and development--which can generate new technologies, improve living standards and spawn entire industries--is not in tatters. R&D spending in the United States is greater than in any other country. Five of the seven Nobel laureates in physics, chemistry and medicine last year were affiliated with U.S. institutions. And leading U.S. technology companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Hewlett-Packard continue to pour money into projects at U.S.-based labs.

But there also are signs of trouble in the nation's system of generating new insights. Those same technology companies are diverting some of their research and development budgets to labs in low-cost countries such as India, part of a broader offshoring trend that some consider a threat to U.S. tech leadership. Others have questioned the possibly corrupting effect of commercial sponsorship of academic research.

What's more, R&D spending in the United States grew just 1 percent last year to $284 billion, a steep drop from its average annual growth of 5.8 percent between 1994 and 2000. This may relate to the economic downturn, but there's still a danger of the United States losing its edge. Observers point to increased research-related efforts in other countries.

Donna Fossum, an analyst at the Rand think tank, argues that research initiatives both in the United States and in other countries have shifted toward more applied research. "The whole world structure has changed," Fossum said. "Everyone is looking for the application. They're looking for 'how can I use it now?'"

Room to fail
The research system in the United States came together around the time of World War II and is rooted in the National Science Foundation Act of 1950. That law established the NSF, which accounts for about 20 percent of federal support to academic institutions for basic research. The goal of the U.S. system was to create a way to fund basic, exploratory research--which tends not to bring immediate practical returns. Conditions today are working against that goal, argued Rand analyst David Adamson. "The incentives tend to promote caution," he said.

Adamson pointed to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, legislation that allowed universities and other organizations to retain title to inventions made under federally funded research programs. The policy provides a financial carrot to work on more practical projects, Adamson suggested.

Eric Weinstein, who has studied the scientific work force for the National Bureau of Economic Research, said the United States is wealthy enough to fund high-risk projects. "We should be doing the most innovative, breathtaking research here, because we alone can afford to fail," he said. "We should be swinging for the fences. Instead the national science system is privately obsessed with vast quantities of workmanlike science for the lowest cost."

Eleanor Babco, executive director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, said research today is probably less risky, thanks to a greater premium on producing early results. "I suspect that what happens is, if you don't have some quick turnaround or reason for continued funding, (more exploratory research) simply doesn't happen anymore," she said.

The emphasis on preliminary data is a marked shift from the past, according to Alberts. "Many of my colleagues and I were awarded our first independent funding when we were under 30 years old," Alberts said in his speech last year. "We did not have preliminary results, because we were trying something completely new."

The National Academy of Sciences and its sister groups the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine, and the National Research Council are trying to jump-start more innovative science through a program called the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative. Launched last year with the help of a $40 million gift from the Keck Foundation, the program promotes interdisciplinary research.

Preliminary data on growing old
One feature of the existing research system is that scientists are getting older before they pin down funding of their own to pursue experiments, Alberts said in his speech. "Almost no one finds it possible to start an independent scientific career under the age of 35," he said. "Even the most talented of our young people seem to be forced to endure several years of rejected grant applications before they finally acquire enough 'preliminary data' to assure the reviewers that they are likely to accomplish their stated goals."

Weinstein said the current situation differs from a time when young people were allowed to publish highly speculative, even wrong assertions, on their path to major discoveries. This applies to both Albert Einstein and Nobel prize-winning physicist Paul Dirac, he said. The system effectively discourages scientists from doing excellent work, Weinstein said.

"People who used to be tenured by age 30 now get tenure when they're 40 or older," he said. "By that time, they've been so long infantilized that their innovation is often beaten out of them."