Making Big Science Decisions
In “Notes from a Revolution: Lessons from the Human Genome Project” (Issues, Spring 2017), David J. Galas, Aristides Patrinos, and Charles DeLisi highlight a chronic flaw in US science policy making that results in missed opportunities, inefficiencies, and in some cases wasted federal resources. The flaw is that the government has no reliable mechanism to plan and execute large scientific projects when they involve several federal agencies.
Individual executive departments and agencies have been extraordinarily successful over many decades in planning and executing large projects. I’ll mention only three. The Department of Energy (and its predecessor agencies) has built world-class instruments to study atomic nuclei and elementary particles as well as light sources for use by many fields of biological and physical sciences. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has built and launched hundreds of instruments to study the solar system and the broader cosmos. The National Science Foundation has deployed a variety of ground-based and orbiting instruments to probe far into distant space (including the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory that in 2015 made the first direct observation of gravitational waves created by colliding black holes) and launched innovative research ships to study the oceans from pole to pole and at the greatest depths.
That said, the authors are correct in calling attention to the “need for a rigorous but flexible process to evaluate large-scale transformative proposals” that significantly affect several fields and federal agencies for all the reasons the authors give. Inside the federal government, this is a job for the White House Office of Science and Technology (OSTP) and its director, who also serves as the president’s science advisor. However, it is a small agency with no authority over budget matters. Its role is strictly advisory. The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), chaired by the president, and its coordinating committees provide an important mechanism for interagency planning. But OSTP officials and NSTC members—cabinet secretaries and heads of research agencies—move on at the end of an administration, or even sooner. What is needed is a mechanism outside the federal government that has continuity and credibility and can engage the research communities—universities, national laboratories (federal and private), and industrial labs—in assessments of needs, evaluation of options, and strategic planning for federal agencies and other partners, domestic and international. One possible model for better planning and coordination of research activities is described in an earlier Issues article by Gary E. Marchant and Wendell Wallach, “Coordinating Technology Governance” (Summer 2015).
The authors of the present article suggest that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine could take this on. Their decadal reports—for example, in astronomy and astrophysics—are influential in setting priorities for whole research fields. Even though the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, under which all the academies operate, and the Executive Order creating the National Research Council restrict the activities of the Academies, they could play a coordinating role, collaborating with several science, engineering, and medical research nongovernment organizations to establish an entity of some kind to take on this difficult job. Many of the challenges to the US research enterprise, including support of high-risk transformational research and innovative university-industry-government partnerships, have been described in several reports of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Perhaps a study by the National Academies that focuses on new mechanisms for long-range strategic planning of large interagency activities (including facilities and programs) in cooperation with nonfederal partners could flesh out the possibilities.