The Future of R&D Hangs in the Balance

A recent symposium revealed two competing views of its value to the U.S.
By Bob Horner

Recently, I attended the annual Engineering Public Policy Symposium, sponsored by numerous technical societies and institutes (including the IES), held in Washington, D.C. This event highlights federal investments and programs for engineering and science R&D to spur innovation and competitiveness. This year, the main topic was the new administration’s proposed R&D budget, which, at the date of the meeting (late April), showed a significant reduction in R&D support for the next fiscal year. Here’s the end of the story: shortly thereafter, due to a large outcry from both the public and private sectors, the administration modified its budget proposals to be more R&D-supportive. Here are some highlights.

The first speaker, Matthew Hourihan, director, R&D Budget and Policy Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), reviewed the administration’s proposed budget and all its unpleasantness. Figure 1 shows the affected areas comparing FY 2018 to FY 2016 (remember, this is the preliminary budget, not the improved version). The audience was aghast—a multitude of negative percentages, with one (DOE ARPA-E) appearing to be eliminated. ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, was created by the America Competes Act of 2007. Its mission is to advance transformative energy research and technologies to improve U.S. energy security and economic competitiveness.

Figure 1.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Figure 1. The first FY18 budget, prior to amendment.

SHORT-TERM VS. LONG-TERM
Two other speakers offered divergent views on federal investments for R&D: Stephen Moore of the Heritage Foundation, one of President Trump’s economic advisors, and Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. Moore discussed the administration’s priority of shorter term economic growth over longer term R&D investment. Atkinson discussed the societal rates of return from R&D investment—every $1 of investment returns $2 of economic contribution.

A panel discussion consisted of Philip Singerman, associate director, NIST; Barry W. Johnson, acting assistant director, National Science Foundation; and Timothy Unruh, deputy assistant secretary for renewable power, EE&RE office, DOE. All gave convincing arguments and examples of economic contribution. The NSF was of particular interest in that it supports both fundamental research and “translational” research (translating fundamental research into commercial applications) in three main areas:

  1. Industry/university partnerships
  2. Small business technology transfer
  3. Entrepreneurial training

The final session included Congressman Paul Tonko representing the Albany/Schenectady region in upstate New York. Tonko, one of the few engineers in Congress, emphasized the need for more engineers. Only 5 percent of graduates in the U.S. are engineers. In Europe, it’s 15 percent, while in Asia it’s 25 percent.

Next was Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, representing the 8th District of Illinois. Prior to entering public service, he was a mechanical engineer and today is particularly interested in ensuring the National Science Foundation budget is maintained.

ROBOT NATION
The final speaker was the head staffer for Congressman Rob Woodall, representing the 7th District of Georgia. He related Woodall’s interest and support of federal R&D efforts in the area of robotics (Woodall is co-chair of the House Robotics Caucus; yes, there really is a robotics caucus.). Robotics is a growing field, benefitting the manufacturing industry, to name just one. It’s not just Roomba vacuum cleaners. Continuing support from both the public and private sector will produce innovations which benefit many industrial and commercial sectors. Who knows… maybe Rosie the Robot from The Jetsons is closer than you think.

The closing remarks from Charla Wise, president-elect of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, reiterated the importance of advancing R&D programs and reminded everyone that we all need to actively support both public and private sector efforts in this important arena. Maybe one day, we will all be saying things like, “Rosie, what’s for dinner tonight?”

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Robert Horner

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