Category Archives: S&T Strategic Plans

** Book Review: Is American Science in Decline?

Yu Xie and Alexandra Killewald have good news for Americans. They have concluded that American science is NOT in decline. Their glass is more than half full, even brimming. There’s just one hitch. They really only looked at a small part of American science: mainly its human resources.

Graduates can be considered to be one output of America’s science establishment, but there are actually a few others that might even be more important–like discoveries from research and innovations from development.   One can measure papers, patents, citations, prototypes and pilot plants, high-technology exports, and the investments that make these outputs possible. Those indicators of R&D are not nearly so favorable to the U.S. 

The authors’ try to broaden their scope by citing a 2008 RAND report that largely based its findings on indicators from many years earlier. which I pointed out at the time.  When your competitors’ indicators are increasing exponentially, it isn’t wise to use old data.  Most notably, China has come out of nowhere with a skyrocketing challenge to the U.S. in many indicators of science and technology, as well as in business. This competition for market share extends to the placement of scientific papers in a fairly fixed number of slots in journals, explaining why American growth rates in publications tanked in recent years as they report in Chapter 2.

Revealingly, the authors divide those writing in this domain into two camps. They use the pejorative term “alarmist” to characterize those who think that American science is in decline, while they have no comparable term for the critics of the alarmists, like themselves. My thesaurus draws a blank for an antonym, but I might suggest “pollyannas.”

To be fair, the authors have provided a competent analysis of the limited domain of science education and jobs for graduates, and they do also cover some surveys of Americans’ attitude toward science.  The NSF survey always reports that the public loves what it is doing.  I wonder about that since so many of the American public seem to have swallowed a lot of denial propaganda about climate change, evolution, vaccines, and the age of the Earth.

I agree with the authors that there is no great shortage of American scientists–rather the opposite.  Pay for scientists in the U.S.  has not risen, as it would if there was really a shortage. Producing more would simply result in more underemployed post-docs.  Systems engineers would recognize this as a classic problem.  You have to find the bottleneck resource that is limiting overall performance of a system, since efforts to improve other resources will be wasted.  While I understand that the authors want to look at the U.S. alone, learning from our competitors’ alternate universes can help with this identification.  My stats show that China is surging ahead of us because it has been increasing real R&D investment by over 15% per year compared to our 3% or less.  It takes money to do science today, and lots of it.  Thus the bottleneck resource in the American science enterprise is R&D funding, not human resources.  A book that is largely based on human resources can be a misleading guide to the question in its title.

An Alarmist

R&D + M = R&D&M

For decades the US has been investing in research and development, but neglecting manufacturing.  Since it is only the manufacturing of products that can repay investments in R&D, this strategy is really a loser–except for multinationals.  They can make money manufacturing abroad–no American workers are needed, except few sales clerks at $8 per hour.   

This is hardly rocket science, but many efforts to reap the benefits of American R&D in America have been ineffective.  But we have to keep trying.  The latest effort was announced by the Obama Administration on June 24–the Advanced Manufacturing Partnership.  This old EE might call it AMP, or R&D&M, adding manufacturing as an essential follow-on to R&D.

WTEC analyzes alternate universes abroad to seek policies that work.  Some countries (you know who you are) have made a spectacular success from the M part, sometimes without much of the R&D part, at least to start.  Learning from abroad is essential in finding strategies for zero-sum games–like seeking world market share of high-tech sales.  It’s silly to contemplate your own navel to see what has to be done; you have to learn from your successful competitors.  Let’s start by banishing the term, R&D alone, and always adding the manufacturing part: R&D&M.

I’ll discuss the Administration’s new AMP program in the next post in this context.

 R. D. Shelton

Innovation in the State of the Union Address

For decades the US innovation community has been trying to get the attention of the White House and Congress for this issue, which has been way down on the list of Washington priorities.  This grassroots lobbying effort has been greatly handicapped by not having the money to buy access that some other lobbies have.  Still, some modest success was gained with the NIH doubling initiative, the American Competitiveness Initiative, and the America COMPETES Act.  Except for the NIH money and a small portion of the ARRA stimulus bill, this has been mostly talk and not much action.  At last we’ve got the attention of the White House, and maybe the Congress.  When a State of the Union address from the President to the Congress is focused almost entirely on this issue, we’ve got the best lobbyist in town on our side. 

WTEC has played a very small role in this movement though its pointing with alarm abroad.  With this new attention at the highest levels, we are positioned to do a lot more.  This President reaffirmed President Truman’s 1950 goal in the address,  “Maintaining our leadership in research and technology is crucial to America’s success.”  Logically, if one has a goal, it is necessary to measure progress toward that goal.  Measuring world leadership of S&T is our middle name: World Technology Evaluation Center, Inc.  And we have a 20-year record of doing more of this than anyone else by the on-site, peer review method that some believe is the most accurate method.

I think we are ideally positioned to take advantage of this new priority that our issue has in Washington.  As the country as a whole focuses on competing in innovation worldwide, WTEC and WTIP should focus on redoubling our efforts to do our part to help.  And as in the case of the country as a whole, we have a very tangible motivation for this: our prosperity depends on it.

NSB Warns that Globalization is a Threat the US Science Leadership

The National Science Board was apparently so alarmed by the findings in the latest SEI2010 that it has released a companion report calling for remedial action–Globalization of Science and Engineering Research.    The last paragraph of the letter of transmittal from Chair Steven Beering says, “We urge Federal attention and action to sustain U.S. world leadership in S&E in response to growing S&E capacity around the world.  Our nation’s future prosperity and security depend on a strong and unwavering Federal committment to this goal.”

One of three major recommendations calls for OSTP to engage all Federal research agencies to: (a) develop means to assess or continue to assess the quality of their agency’s supported research against international activities, and (b) to identify and as appropriate make adjustments necessary to ensure that their agency’s research is world-leading.”

NSF/ENG is already doing a good deal of this through the WTEC program, and other international activities.  I wonder if the NSB knows.

Of course, I have been saying much the same thing for years in this blog and elsewhere.  It’s gratifying to have others come to the same realization.

R. D. Shelton

Science The Endless Frontier

Talk about ancient history! This influential report was written by Vannevar Bush in 1945.  This more constructive Bush had coordinated R&D during WWII with great success, including the Manhattan Project, military applications of radar, sonar, the proximity fuse, the Norden bomb sight, and many others that had helped the Allies win the war.  Near the end of the war, he was asked by President Franklin Roosevelt to study how R&D could be organized after the war for peacetime benefits.  One recommendation led to the National Science Foundation, but there is much more in the report.  Today when we seem to be at a loss for justifying investments in R&D, the report’s eloquence on the benefits of R&D, particularly basic research, to the nation in economic prosperity and national security can be an inspiration.

Bush’s letter of transmittal closes with, “Science offers a largely unexplored hinterland for the pioneer who has the tools for his task. The rewards of such exploration both for the Nation and the individual are great. Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.”

Another snippet from later in the report:

“Progress in the war against disease depends upon a flow of new scientific knowledge. New products, new industries, and more jobs require continuous additions to knowledge of the laws of nature, and the application of that knowledge to practical purposes. Similarly, our defense against aggression demands new knowledge so that we can develop new and improved weapons. This essential, new knowledge can be obtained only through basic scientific research.”

The report is at:

Here’s Bush’s Wikipedia biography.

R. D. Shelton

S&T In China: A Roadmap to 2050

CAS Roadmap to 2050

This handsome softcover book has just been released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and is published in the West by Springer.  Editor-in-Chief Yongziang Lu and his team deserve great credit for making this strategic general report available in English, soon after its publication in China.

The CAS plays a central role in natural sciences in China; thus they took the lead in following up on the National Mid- and Long-Term S&T Plan to 2020, released in 2006.  Of course, command economies have had lots of practice in planning, a talent still useful in today’s more market-oriented economy.  With great effort, and much controversy, Western countries might be able to produce a five- or ten-year plan for S&T; the Chinese now have one for the next 40 years.  Indeed, the book takes a typically Chinese longer view; its treatment of the history of scientific revolutions reaches back centuries.  One thesis is that the Great Recession of 2008-9 might catalyze the next S&T revolution, as similar financial crises have done in the past.  Since this worldwide cataclysm coincided with China’s emergence as challenger to Western leadership in economic and S&T strength, there there is some suggestion that the next revolution may see China become the next “world science center,” following Italy, Britain, France, Germany, and the USA in succession.  In the end they predict that there will be multiple centers, and this roadmap is designed to ensure that China is one of them.

The roadmap follows standard methods; identification of areas of focus (none surprising), characteristics of the areas, objectives for their progress, and research agendas that could achieve that progress.  The plan recognizes that currently “As to S&T development, China is generally a follower and imitator.”  To move toward their goal, “an innovation-driven country with Chinese characteristics,” China must continue to be open to best ideas from abroad, but “original innovation is the source of a country’s international competitiveness.  Key technologies of strategic importance can never be bought from the outside world.”

I think that it’s time that the US learned from the Chinese that long range planning can help guide a nation’s efforts toward great objectives, including leadership in science and technology; their record of meteoric progress speaks for itself.  The new Obama innovation plan requires much more detailed implementation planning, and this Chinese roadmap could be a reasonable model. Our National Academy of Sciences doesn’t have the bulk of the CAS, with its hundreds of research institutes, but it does have the intellectual power to plan at least as effectively.

R. D. Shelton

Canadian S&T Policy Conference Talks Posted

This Oct. 28-30 conference focused on Canada, which is interesting in its own right, of course.  The conference also had some comparisons of S&T policies from other countries, like the behemoth next door.  As I have said, I’d like to see a conference like this here in Baja Ontario, to discuss how to implement the recent US S&T innovation plan.

R. D. Shelton

World Leadership Goals of the New OSTP Compared to the Old

When President George W. Bush finally appointed Jack Marburger to be the Director of OSTP in June, 2000, I reported in my old ITRInews #34 that the press release clearly signaled a downgrade of the position, indeed the rumours were that several candidates had turned down the position for that reason. 

This was not the only downgrade.   Fourteen months later, their former top goal, as stated in first sentence on the OSTP homepage, “The Federal Government plays a critical role in maintaining American leadership in science and technology.”  disappeared completely from the site, without comment.   See the ITRInews #48 article and editorial, “The dog that didn’t bark.”  (In the interests of full disclosure, I had actually sent a letter to Dr. Marburger warning that, based on scores of WTEC studies, such a goal was going to be difficult to achieve.  I doubt if I had any impact on this decision, though; he or his staff certainly didn’t reply.)

Insiders in the Bush OSTP have told me that they just got tired of being hammered by agencies who pointed with alarm abroad to bolster their requests for more money.  So the easiest thing was to just get rid of the goal that President Truman had set in 1950–they probably didn’t even know that history.  The last time I looked, the White House OMB still puts this goal in its annual budget submissions to Congress, but they seem to only be talking at the US input investment in R&D being greater than any other country, not any kind of output performance measure.

The new OSTP doesn’t exactly highlight this goal either. Their website now starts with,

“The Office of Science and Technology Policy advises the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. The office serves as a source of scientific and technological analysis and judgment for the President with respect to major policies, plans and programs of the Federal Government. OSTP leads an interagency effort to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets. The office works with the private sector to ensure Federal investments in science and technology contribute to economic prosperity, environmental quality, and national security.”

But if you drill down into the site, you find their new innovation strategic plan that does address this goal.  (We wonks had waited in vain for eight years for the Bush Administration to produce an S&T  plan.) The plan has near the top:

“1. Invest in the Building Blocks of American Innovation. We must first ensure that our economy is given all the necessary tools for successful innovation, from investments in research and development to the human, physical, and technological capital needed to perform that research and transfer those innovations.

 Restore American leadership in fundamental research. President Obama implemented the largest increase in basic R&D in history, which will lay the foundation for new discoveries and new technologies that will improve our lives and create the industries of the future.”

Nitpickers will notice that restoring leadership in fundamental research is not nearly as a broad as Truman’s goal of maintaining world leadership in S&T generally, but it is a start.

R. D. Shelton

Key US Decision Makers on S&T Policy: President Barak Obama

The pale guy on the right is your humble author.  I didn’t crash this event, but I wasn’t impressed with its security, either.

Of course, the President has more influence over S&T policy than anyone else in town. Fortunately he seems to be sympathetic to reaping the benefits of our investments in R&D by manufacturing and selling some of our inventions.

President Obama has restored the role of the White House science advisor and has said some constructive things about goals. OSTP released the first S&T strategic plan in a long time only eight months after the Administration took office. As I reviewed earlier ( ), it gets off to a good start by setting a goal of R&D investment of 3% of GDP, and identifies some reasonable focus areas. However, it is short on incentives for the private sector to cooperate, and by speaking only of economic motivations for R&D, forfeits the most powerful motivator for the Congress and public: national security. (On November 17 the Washington Post reported on a survey that asked the public which government agency was most respected. DOD was on top with four times more votes than NIH; Commerce was not on the list.) These problems could be solved by a more detailed implementation plan.

We S&T enthusiasts have to remember that the President has far more immediate problems, and his attention span can’t exceed 24 hours a day.  It’s hard to remember to floss to keep your teeth,  when you are up to your waist in alligators.  We can try to keep his attention by approaching him through the right channels: OSTP, PCAST, the right members of Congress, and maybe his chief of staff–apparently that’s the contact that got President Bush’s attention on the RAGS report.  I’ll provide more on these contacts later.

R. D. Shelton

S&T Strategic Plans: ONR

 The Office of Naval Research has a distinguished heritage as one of America’s premier sponsors of basic research.  Indeed in 1950 its early success was one of the models that led to the founding of the National Science Foundation for the civilian sector.  In recent years, though, ONR has shifted toward more applied research priorities.  When young American military personnel are being killed every day by improvised explosive devices (IEDs), it’s hard to wait decades for new discoveries in chemistry and physics to provide solutions. Their current strategic plan reflects that urgency, and hopefully civilian agencies like NIH, NSF, DOE, and NIST will have more patient capital.

The plan says, “As the Department of the Navy’s S&T provider, ONR provides technology solutions for Navy and Marine Corps needs. ONR’s mission — defined by law — is to plan, foster, and encourage scientific research in recognition of its paramount importance as related to the maintenance of future naval power, and the preservation of national security. Further, ONR manages the Navy’s basic, applied, and advanced research to foster transition from science and technology to higher levels of research, development, test and evaluation.”

R. D. Shelton