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NRC Presents House of Representatives with Action Plan for Driving University Scientific Innovation

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – If the US wants to maintain its place as the global leader in scientific innovation then the longstanding tradition of partnership between federal and state governments, research universities, and technology-based businesses needs to be reinvigorated with more stable government funding, streamlined regulations, and incentivizing tax policies, members of a National Research Council panel told a House of Representatives subcommittee yesterday.

Presenting a report that was commissioned by House members in 2009, the NRC committee members yesterday told the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education that public research universities today face a number of significant challenges.

The report, Research Universities and the Future of America: Ten Breakthrough Actions Vital to Our Nation's Prosperity and Security, sketches a landscape of research universities that have seen waning federal and state funding for years, that need to be more efficient, that require more partnerships with business, and that are burdened by reporting regulations.

Young faculty members in particular have felt the squeeze of reduced funding and have not had as much opportunity to launch their careers as their elders have, concluded the committee from the NRC, which is part of the National Academies.

To address these and other problems, the NRC report advises that policymakers prioritize and stabilize funding for research, focus on science and technology-related investments in the federal budget, promote collaborations between business and universities, reduce regulations that increase administrative costs and impede research productivity, and make it easier for foreign students and researchers to obtain visas, among other proposals.

The NRC committee presented its report to the House members during a week in which the Association of Public Land Grant Universities celebrated the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Land-Grant College Act, which President Abraham Lincoln signed in 1862 to create a system of agricultural and industrial research institutions through partnerships between the federal government and the states.

That act, and federal and private investments made in universities since World War II has led the US to be home to between 35 and 40 of the world's top 50 research universities, Chad Holliday, chair of the NRC committee and chairman of the board of Bank of America told the House subcommittee in testimony yesterday.

"Innovation has remained a part of the fabric of this nation since its founding," Subcommittee Chairman Mo Brooks (R - Ala) said in a statement yesterday. "Particularly in today's tough economic times, research universities play a vital role in America's ability to maintain its competitiveness in an increasingly technologically developed world, and the knowledge and skills produced by our nation's research graduates provide the fuel for these endeavors," Brooks said.

Along with Holliday, the NRC committee included representatives from academia, government, national laboratories, and the business sector.

A Challenge and A Plan for Action

The NRC committee was tasked with drafting 10 recommendations for ways to support US research universities. The charge was a response to a report published in 2007 by the National Academies of Science called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which has been highly influential in science policy circles. That report found that US research was losing ground to other countries that have been boosting their investments in science in recent years.

"Asia, for the first time, will surpass America this year in total global research and development spending," John Mason, associate provost and VP for research at Auburn University, told the subcommittee yesterday. "The long-term implications for US prosperity and security are profound."

The report points out that federal funding for university research has been "unstable," and in real terms has fallen while other countries have increased R&D spending. The authors also note that the business community has largely dismantled the large corporate R&D labs that propelled so much innovation in the 20th Century, such as Bell Labs, but have not increased partnerships with research universities enough to make up for the loss of those labs.

The report identifies three broad goals for advancing US research: revitalizing the partnership between government, business, non-profits, and the universities, improving productivity of research operations within the universities, and building a base of young talent to fuel the development of American science.

The NRC report advises the federal government to change burdensome policies and regulations governing university research and graduate education, such as inefficient cost-reimbursement, and to fully fund the America Competes Act. That act provides enhanced support to the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science.

The committee also suggests that the White House should work with the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Science and Technology Policy to present a specific federal science and technology budget every year that addresses national priorities.

The NRC group recommends that the federal government not only make the R&D tax credit permanent, but also implement new tax incentives for business-university partnerships and encourage long-term collaborations between industry and universities. It also suggests that universities improve their technology transfer programs.

"The committee believes that the R&D Tax Credit should be made permanent, but made permanent in a smart way, and should reward companies that have a 10-year relationship with universities," Holliday told the subcommittee.

Universities should take steps to increase their cost-effectiveness and productivity, set cost-containment goals, and develop new management and accounting tools, the report advises.

Another proposal from the NRC committee is that the federal government should create a strategic investment program that would endow faculty chairs to help the careers of young investigators and another program that would scale up university research infrastructure with an initial focus on cyber-infrastructure. These two initiatives would need to be funded with $7 billion per year over the next decade from the federal government, and they would leverage an additional $9 billion through matching state funds and grants from other partners.

Because over the past two decades universities have had to cover an increasing share of the costs of research projects, which has drawn university funds from other obligations, the federal government and other funders also should strive to cover the full direct and indirect costs of research projects, the report's authors advise.

The report also recommends the federal government make visa processing for international students and scholars pursuing research in the US more efficient, and make it easier for such immigrants to obtain permanent residency or citizenship.

"Fifty-five percent of the PhD engineering students in this country have temporary visas, and we must find a way to keep them in this country," the report states. "We must also work on [science, technology, engineering and mathematics education programs] so that more of those are Americans."

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