A Focused Approach to Society’s Grand Challenges

Fundamental research linked to well-defined societal goals is a critical but underused tool of science and technology policy.

The United States faces a number of “grand challenges”: technically complex societal problems that have stubbornly defied solution. At or near the top of any list is the need to develop new energy sources that are clean, affordable, and reliable. The list also would include creating high-quality jobs for the nation’s population, finding cures for cancer, developing more effective ways of teaching and learning, identifying new ways to improve health and reduce the cost of care, improving the management of water resources, developing more nutritious foods and improving food safety, and speeding up the development of vaccines for deadly diseases, among others.

Many observers at many times have declared that such challenges are best solved by bringing science to bear on them. But how effective has this approach been? Regarding energy, for instance, the answer is, not very. Among the two most favored—and ineffective—tools that have been tried are appointing a White House “czar” to coordinate the fruitless technological efforts already in place and creating publicly funded technology demonstrations that are supposed to convince industry to adopt the technologies, even while evidence is lacking that they are affordable or effective.

Still, the Obama administration has declared its intent to try a new level of reliance on science to solve the energy mess. The administration has expressed its commitment to changing the nation from an energy economy based on fossil fuels to one based on renewable sources of energy. This transition is expected to benefit from a major investment in science, which must create the ideas on which radical new technologies rest. Such a government effort must also ensure that these technologies are affordable and will be exploited, under appropriate incentives, by a transformed energy industry.

On a broader level, the administration plans to harness science to achieve other public goods as well, as expressed in the newly enacted American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Plus, the government is backing up this policy commitment with increased budgets for the 2010 fiscal year for research, as well as for educating students for an increasingly technological future.

Without doubt, these actions are valuable. Few critics would deny that improving schools, encouraging more U.S. students to take up science and engineering, and devoting more resources for research by the nation’s best academic laboratories will lead to new science and some valuable innovations. They are critical inputs to the needed system of innovation that creates new industries.

But is this policy focus on science sufficient to the tasks at hand? I believe that two other policy elements are necessary if the grand challenges are to be met in a reasonable amount of time. The first element involves a new type of policy that is geared to promoting science that is more focused than pure research, yet more creative than most applied research. Advocates of this tool call it “Jeffersonian science.” The second element involves a new set of policies that are tailored to moving the products of science into innovations and from there to new industries. This is the heart of the innovation challenge. Advocates of these tools call them research and innovation (R&I) policies, as contrasted with more conventional research and development (R&D) policies. Such R&I policies would cover institutions and organizations that finance and perform R&D; finance investments in technology-based startups and new ventures; attend to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies; and manage matters related to such issues as intellectual property, taxes, monetary functions, and trade.

Nevertheless, many members of the science community continue to try to persuade politicians that sufficient investments in basic science will, in due course, lead to discoveries that create inventions. In turn, the argument goes, these inventions will be snatched up by angel investors who create new companies that someday may become industries that solve the nation’s problems.

History shows that this has, indeed, happened. Studies that have traced current technologies back to their scientific origins have often found an interval of around 30 years between discovery (the laser, for example) and industrial maturity (the LASIK tool for treating cataracts in the eye). But it is instructive to examine such historic events, note their origins, and explore how more effective government policies might have accelerated this process, reducing the elapsed time from 30 years to perhaps 10 years.

Growth of deep pockets

A quick review of how U.S. science policy has evolved will help reveal a new approach to shortening the time and cost of the innovations needed to meet grand challenges. Over the past half century, the U. S. government became a deeppockets source of support for science. This development happened, in large measure, because of the contributions of applied science and engineering to winning World War II, the vision of people such as Vannevar Bush, and the emergence of a threatening Soviet Union, At first, many academic science administrators were deeply suspicious of government as a sponsor, fearing constraints on their intellectual freedom and uncertain continuity of support. But the research universities, under leaders such as Frederick Terman of Stanford, soon saw the opportunity and took the risk to build their science and engineering programs around “soft” government research grant support.

Government, for its part, saw science as a means of sustaining its military primacy. In 1960, the Department of Defense funded fully one-third of all R&D in the Western world. The Office of Naval Research (ONR) set the standard for government funding of academic science, encouraging unsolicited proposals from universities in disciplines the Navy thought might be useful. This approach was necessary because the academic environment, where the best talent could be found, insisted on freedom to be creative; and because the military, with its long development cycles, could afford to be patient. ONR managers, themselves often former heads of wartime research programs, also understood that until civilian institutions willing to support academic science were created (the National Science Foundation was not created until nine years after World War II), the Department of Defense would have to make that academic investment. Finally, the military was content to fund basic science without much concern for the translation of scientific knowledge to manufactured products, because the military services make their own markets.

As the nation’s commercial economy grew, however, it became clear that economic progress depended on both innovations born of government-promoted science and the development of the innovations into viable new industries, accomplished through commercial markets and private investment. Thus, a marriage was consummated by two partners—science and politics—who needed each other, but with quite different motives and quite different systems of values.

In a government where conservatives were reluctant to see government funds used to prime commercial markets and liberals were eager to see public funds used to accelerate industrial innovation, the compromise was self-evident. The government would support academic science, engineering, and medical research, leaving the management and finance for transforming scientific discoveries into economic value to the incentives of private financial markets. By this route, the United States has built the most powerful science knowledge engine in the world. But now the issue has become whether the nation’s science policies and institutions can meet the various grand challenges quickly enough.

Policy scholars are rising to the task of answering this question. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University and a former adviser on science and technology to various government agencies, criticizes “a culture that values ‘pure’ research above all other types, as if some invisible hand will steer scientists’ curiosity toward socially useful inquiries.” He continues: “This is not about basic versus applied research; both are crucial…. Rather it is about the capacity of our research institutions to create knowledge that is as socially useful as it is scientifically meritorious.”

Irwin Feller, a senior visiting scientist at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and professor emeritus of economics at Pennsylvania State University, and Susan Cozzens, director of the Technology Policy and Assessment Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology School of Public Policy, argue that “the government role in science and innovation extends far beyond money.” They cite a National Academy of Sciences study titled A Strategy for Assessing Science (2007) that says, “No theory exists that can reliably predict which activities are most likely to lead to scientific advances for societal benefit.” Reliable prediction of utility from basic science is surely the province of applied science and engineering, not of basic science. On the other hand, if the nation abandons the creativity of basic science because its outcomes are unpredictable, the nation also will abandon a great reservoir of talent and opportunity for solving tough problems.

A third way forward

Here is where Jeffersonian science offers a third way. Proposed by Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton of Harvard University (the former is a sociologist of science, the latter a physicist and historian of science), this approach combines top-down and bottom-up strategies to encourage basic science that may lead to knowledge that might make a grand challenge easier to solve.

Unfortunately, people who write about public policy too often fail to distinguish between the problems of policymaking for new knowledge (science policy) and policy- making for finding solutions to problems (innovation policy). They neglect the middle-ground strategy—the heart of Jeffersonian science—aimed at making the task of finding those solutions less difficult.

This approach begins with the top-down identification by experts of the technical, financial, and political issues to be faced in confronting a challenge, and then asks which bottom-up solutions are likely to be long delayed for lack of basic knowledge and the new tools that research might create. Government science agencies then provide competitive basic research funding in the disciplines thought most likely to yield critical knowledge.

The United States has some good experience with this approach. When Richard Klausner was director of the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, from 1995 to 2001, he set the institute’s mission as finding cures for cancers. He knew that this goal was not likely to be reached in less than several decades unless science could find a way to make the cancer problem more tractable. The biomedical research community was then challenged to make discoveries and create new tools in fields of immunology, cellular biology, genetics, and other areas that might make the problem easier to solve by others. This approach yielded new ways of diagnosing and treating cancer that would never have followed from focusing on a more short-term, clinical research approach.

If such a Jeffersonian approach were to be applied to fostering a revolution in the U.S. energy economy, a good place to start would be to build on an analysis made by Charles Weiss of Georgetown University and William Bonvillian of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both longtime experts and advisers to governments on issues of science and technology. They propose a new four-step analytical policy framework. The first step is to assess current energy technologies with a view to identifying the weaknesses and problems they might face in a world market. Second, each technology path must be studied to identify policy measures, from research to regulatory incentives, that can overcome barriers to commercialization. Third, it will be necessary to identify functional gaps in the current government policies and institutions that would, if not changed, distort the ability to carry out the two previous steps. The fourth step is to propose public- and private-sector interventions to close those gaps.

To see how this might work in practice, consider one item on which most experts already agree; that is, steps one and two have, in essence, already have taken place. It is widely accepted that a breakthrough in energy storage that promised to be economical and sustainable would change the options completely for wind and photovoltaic electricity generation and in electric vehicle propulsion. But to produce the payoffs from the Jeffersonian approach, the analysis must be taken to a much greater depth scientifically, so that ideas at the disciplinary level that might seem remote from the practical problem can garner the attention they deserve. Experts would identify subdisciplines of promise: those that are intellectually lively and are struggling with questions that might have a relationship to some part of the energy system analysis. Scientists would be encouraged to submit unsolicited proposals to a Jeffersonian science program. The motives of grant recipients would be largely indistinguishable from those funded to pursue pure science.

Even if the research never yielded a game-changing new idea for sustainable energy, good scientific knowledge would contribute to the broad progress of science. However, experience suggests that if the normal communications among scientists in a Jeffersonian science program are healthy, they will create an intellectual environment in which curiosity will bring to light many new ideas for making the energy grand challenge easier and quicker to master.

Recommended Reading

  • Philip Auerswald and L. M. Branscomb, “Research and Innovation in a Networked World,” Technology in Society 30, nos. 3-4 (July 2008): 339–347.
  • Lewis Branscomb, Gerald Holton, and Gerhard Sonnert, Cutting-Edge Basic Research in the Service of Public Objectives, Proceedings of a Conference on Basic Research in the Service of Public Objectives, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, May 2001.
  • Lewis Branscomb, Gerald Holton, and Gerhard Sonnert, “Science for Society: Cutting-Edge Basic Research in the Service of Public Objectives,” in AAAS S&T Yearbook 2002 (Washington, DC: AAAS, 2002), 397–434.
  • Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton, Ivory Bridges: Connecting Science and Society (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).
  • Charles Weiss and William B. Bonvillian, Structuring an Energy Technology Revolution (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009).
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Cite this Article

Branscomb, Lewis. “A Focused Approach to Society’s Grand Challenges.” Issues in Science and Technology 25, no. 4 (Summer 2009).

Vol. XXV, No. 4, Summer 2009