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Summer 1998

A new model for national science policy

This President's Corner summarizes a letter I recently wrote to the U.S. House of Representatives Science Committee in response to requests for input from the science community for their Science Policy Study, chaired by the committee vice chairman, Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). The purpose of the study is to update the science and technology policy of the United States, which for more than 50 years has been based on the 1945 report Science--The Endless Frontier. That report was written by Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) at the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Bush was a prominent scientist, an advisor to presidents, and a force behind the establishment of the National Science Foundation. A complete copy of my letter is available on the Web.

Although the Vannevar Bush model of science and society has served the nation well over the past 50 years, changes in almost all aspects of the national and international environment have made modifications to this model timely. An appropriately evolved national science policy should recognize the essential nature of federal support for short- and long-term science and technology (S&T) research; establish general priorities based on national needs; maintain a balanced scientific portfolio; encourage partnerships among government, industry, universities, and national laboratories nationally and internationally; and support the scientific infrastructure, including information technology and supercomputing, necessary to carry out the most relevant and highest-quality science. The principle of free and open exchange of scientific data, which has served the United States and all the nations of the world so well in the past, must be maintained. And finally, excessive and unnecessary government oversight and regulation of science should be modified to a process that assures appropriate oversight and accountability without stifling initiative or diverting excessive resources of time and money from the productive support of science.

Below is a brief discussion of each of these areas.

Scientific portfolio. As emphasized by Vannevar Bush, an appropriate and essential role of the federal government is to invest in a broad portfolio of short- and long-term scientific research and technology development in support of national needs. These federal investments should have a significant social return and be in the national priority areas mentioned in the next paragraph. Federally supported S&T benefits the entire nation, often in unforeseen and unpredictable ways. There is no practical alternative to this support.

S&T priorities. The federal government sets S&T goals and priorities in the context of the federal budget and policy review process. These decisions reflect national needs in the broadest sense, including maintaining peace; meeting human health needs; sustaining energy and food production; protecting the environment; creating an effective, efficient, and safe transportation system and other infrastructure needs; creating new knowledge; developing economic growth opportunities; training and educating our citizens; protecting life and property from weather and other natural hazards; and supporting regulatory and enforcement functions.

One example from atmospheric sciences of demonstrable returns to society by federal investments is the advancement in knowledge about weather and climate processes, from the center of the Earth to the center of the Sun, and the corresponding improvements in predictions and warnings that derive from this knowledge. The U.S. sustains losses of roughly $350 billion annually due to atmospheric extremes like hurricanes, floods, droughts, tornadoes, heat waves, and winter storms. Timely and accurate forecasts and warnings, such as those related to El Niño during the past year, prevent these losses from being much higher.

Research partnerships. Predicated upon the essential foundation of federal support for S&T, partnerships among government, industry, universities, and national laboratories play an important role in the overall S&T process, both domestically and internationally. They make efficient use of our nation's extensive research enterprise, promote technology transfer, supply important mechanisms to undertake large or international science projects, and provide some of the best training for the next generation of scientists and engineers.

U.S. universities and national laboratories are vital resources for our nation and are key players in these partnerships. They are still the envy of the world and need to be appropriately and thoughtfully nurtured in the true sense of a partnership with the federal government.

Technology transfer. Scientific research and education are critical foundations for the nation's economic competitiveness and well being. However, applying new knowledge to practical uses is a nontrivial process and often proceeds slower than it could. By acting as bridges between research and applications, and between government and industry, universities can play important roles in technology transfer.

Technology transfer benefits the mission agencies of the government as well as industry. For example, UCAR and its university members work closely with the federal government (e.g., the National Weather Service) and a broad range of private industries to convert technologies into useful and important products. These technologies include weather radars, atmospheric measurement systems, data management systems, software, air pollution sensors, aviation weather hazard sensors, and numerical weather prediction models. Many of these technologies reduce fatalities, injuries, and property damage from hazardous weather phenomena.

Information technology. This technology, including advances in communication, is revolutionizing the way science is done today. Through faster national and international communications and more powerful computers, problem solving on issues critical to our health and well-being are being addressed in hours, instead of years.

An essential tool to address many of the most important scientific problems facing humanity (such as climatic and environmental variability and change) is the supercomputer. Up until a few years ago, the United States was the indisputable world leader in scientific computing. Recently, however, scientists in the United States have been denied access to the world's most powerful supercomputers. Modeling weather and climate requires the use of cutting-edge supercomputers. Current procurement restrictions have put the U.S. atmospheric science community at a significant disadvantage relative to our peer institutions around the world that have supercomputers several times more powerful than those available to U.S. scientists. A new science policy should recognize the importance of supercomputer technologies, provide adequate support for these essential scientific tools, and ensure their availability to scientists.

Data exchange. For more than 100 years, nearly all countries of the world have supported the principle of free and open exchange of meteorological data, and this principle has served all nations exceptionally well by supporting operational weather prediction and by fostering weather and climate research for the benefit of all. This principle has generally carried over to other scientific disciplines, again to the mutual benefit of all nations. Recently, however, this principle has been threatened by some commercial interests that seek to retain proprietary rights over certain environmental data. While commercial investment in collecting certain unique scientific data has a role in increasing the data available to scientists, U.S. science policy should adhere steadfastly to the principle of free and open exchange of environmental and other scientific data, not only for scientific and educational purposes, but also for governmental use for operational weather and climate forecasting. In the long run this is the most cost-effective way to advance science and technology and to deliver the most accurate weather and climate forecasts to everyone.

Oversight. Science and research management and oversight issues also affect our ability to carry out cost-effective research and development in partnership with federal agencies. The amount of energy and resources both UCAR and its university members must invest in fulfilling government regulations, oversight, and auditing has grown to an excessive and unnecessary level over the last decade.

During the past few years, several studies have been conducted to estimate the cost of regulatory compliance. Based on five such studies that we have reviewed, including two by the Department of Defense, government contractors are estimated to spend between 18% and 40% of their costs on regulatory compliance. We estimate that government oversight, auditing, and regulations consume as much as 20% of UCAR's General and Administrative expenditures. The return on this effort is negligible. For example, the total of disallowed costs resulting from audits of UCAR over the past ten years is less than $50,000, which is less than 0.005% of UCAR's total budget over this period! We estimate that UCAR spends as much as $100,000 (not including costs for the government audit personnel) on each audit.

As taxpayers, we welcome prudent oversight and regulation, but the current situation of layer upon layer of regulations is robbing our nation of important research and education dollars at no benefit to anyone. We suggest that it is time for an independent commission to conduct an objective benefit/cost comparison of the value of these regulations and oversight mechanisms.

NCAR facilities use: Some handy links

Most of those responding to the UCAR Quarterly reader's survey do not want to be notified of deadlines for using NCAR facilities, such as the supercomputers, aircraft, and lower-atmosphere observing systems. So we won't be publishing this information regularly. For those of you in the minority, however, here are some Web sites that explain facility use. For other information about the facilities, start at the UCAR home page.

And by the way, if you haven't returned your survey, please do so. We are still compiling results, and your input is still needed.

Scientific Computing Division supercomputers
Atmospheric Technology Division (ATD) aircraft
Other ATD facilities
Data archives (this Web site also offers links to other NCAR facilities)

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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
Prepared for the Web by Jacque Marshall
Last revised: Tue Apr 4 14:55:01 MDT 2000