US moving to boost researcher focus on product development

Academics recognise need but fear loss of attention on basic science

May 19, 2020
University students working on a patentable invention
Source: iStock

Eight years after the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) created a new division to help convert basic scientific discoveries into products, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is on the verge of doing something similar.

The idea, to launch a new directorate within the NSF or some other associated structure or foundation, has been gathering support within the Trump administration, among members of Congress in both parties and across the business community.

Implementation is being “really seriously considered at this point”, the outgoing chair of the NSF’s governing board, Diane Souvaine, a professor of computer science and former vice-provost for research at Tufts University, said in an interview after a board meeting that reviewed the matter.

Yet as with the NIH’s 2012 creation of its product-centred division, known as the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, or NCATS, many university researchers remain wary of a loss of focus.

Academic scientists certainly support the idea of having their inventions converted into tangible and useful items, but they fear an eventual cut in government money for the basic scientific exploration that drives future inventions.

“A lot of the tension that I see in the academic community comes from the perception and the fear that it’s going to divert resources from a pie that isn’t big enough in the first place,” said Michael Malone, vice-chancellor for research and a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Christopher Cramer, vice-president for research and a professor of chemistry at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, shares that anxiety. “The devil will be in the budgetary details,” he warned.

Nevertheless, the idea has remained attractive to policymakers, especially as they keep watching centrally controlled economies, such as that of China, register major gains relative to the US with coordinated governmental pursuits of research applications.

Its leading advocates in academia include Maria Zuber, the vice-president for research and a professor of geophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who has testified before Congress in favour of adding the new NSF directorate.

“This would complement, not supplant, existing NSF work − and that condition is critical,” Professor Zuber told Times Higher Education.

But Thomas Peterson, a professor of engineering at the University of California, Merced who formerly led the engineering directorate at the NSF, said he did not know how the basic research share of the agency’s budget could be guaranteed not to suffer.

A safer and more effective approach, Professor Peterson said, would involve convincing NSF divisions to keep closer watch on the commercial products and social benefits that already accrue from the academic science they finance, and then make sure that lawmakers understand those connections.

Leaders in Congress might not wait for that. Advocates for structural reform include the US Senate’s top Democrat, minority leader Chuck Schumer, who has been promoting the creation of a new “National Science and Technology Foundation”. The entity backed by Mr Schumer would emphasise work in areas that include artificial intelligence, computing, robotics and 5G telecommunications.

That and other ideas circulating on Capitol Hill reflect a concern that the US moves too slowly to exploit its own innovations, Professor Souvaine said. “We need to know how not to let groundbreaking transformative research sit on the shelf and languish for a little bit before it gets translated,” she said.

One existing promising approach for improving the rate at which NSF-funded discoveries become products is the I-Corps programme, in which hundreds of scientists have been taught to interview the people who might use their ideas, to gauge their interest.

One example of the tactic, Professor Malone said, involves a University of Massachusetts researcher who invented a new material for artificial cartilage. After talking with some surgeons, however, she learned that most doctors felt satisfied with their existing options.

One key lesson there, he said, is to get such feedback as soon as possible and then move on. A more fundamental lesson is that major new structures may not be necessary to accomplish that, he added.

Instead, Professor Malone said, the US government and academic researchers might do better if they “struggle through the tensions of modernising or altering the existing agencies, to make them more effective” at sharing ideas with industry.

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