What It Takes To Be a Leader in Both Basic Science and Technological Progress

Paul Romer

New York University

Statement for House Budget Committee Hearing on Federal R&D

Wednesday July 8, 2020

Background Papers

1 The Weakness Revealed By the Pandemic

Kari Stefansson is the founder of deCode Genetics, the firm that has been doing population scale genomics in Iceland and contributed to its successful management of the coronavirus pandemic. In a conversation about this experience, Kari said that the technology that he and everyone else in the world is using to test for the presence of the virus was developed in universities based in the US. The question he posed was why the US has been less effective than other countries in taking practical advantage of its amazing basic scientific achievements.

It is a good question. In 2019, a team at Johns Hopkins evaluated how well prepared various nations were to manage a pandemic. They concluded that the United States was the best prepared nation in the world. The United Kingdom was number two. (The results are available here.)

So the question is not simply why the US response was so inadequate, but also why the people tasked with thinking about these issues failed to anticipate how poorly we would do.

For members of the academic community, the convenient answer to this question is that blame for our failed national response lies with our political leaders. But as the warning sign at rail crossing in France cautions: Be careful. One train may hide another.

2 Science, Technology, and That Trade-Off Thing

In the wake of the pandemic, we need to revisit the conversation about the failure of our national innovation system to apply scientific insights and capture the practical benefits we desire. The usual frame for this discussion posits a private business sector that "failed to take up" the insights discovered by the academic scientists. In the current iteration of this discussion, we need to consider, skeptically, a new version of this narrative in which academics claim that it was the government that "failed to take up" the academic insights.


Two narratives about the United States

Many commentators have observed that national leadership in basic science is neither necessary nor sufficient for leadership in technological progress. In terms of the two-by-two table in Figure 1, this means that a nation can end up in either of the off-diagonal boxes.

There is, of course, general agreement that the United States should aspire to leadership along both dimensions and a lingering presumption that leadership in science should naturally translate into leadership in technology. In his famous report The Endless Frontier, Vannevar Bush laid out what has come to be known as the “linear model” in which new ideas are produced by basic science, refined by applied science, and translated in practical benefits by product development. According to this model, the rate of new discoveries is limited by the rate of new ideas from basic science which puts new possibilities onto its conveyor belt. Were this model correct, leadership in basic science would be necessary for leadership in technology but not sufficient. The downstream activities are also required. This helps explain the defense by basic scientists, that others have not "taken up" their insights. The problem lies downstream.

There are instances of discovery that support the linear model. Basic mathematical research in number theory translated into applied cryptography. But there are many other instances which do not. The basic science of thermodynamics did not lead to the steam engine as an application. The steam engine led to thermodynamics as physicists tried to figure out what it was that the problem solvers were doing. As a result, no student of science and technology is willing to defend the linear model.

The historical evidence also undermines the linear model. Nations do find themselves in the off-diagonal boxes, leading in one dimension but not the other. At different points in time, the United States has found itself in both off-diagonal boxes. More controversially, I want to suggest that we may not ever have been in a stable position of dual leadership in the box in the upper right.

There is a narrative about the current state in the US that is informed by the linear model which starts in the post-WWII era, one suggested by the red arrow and the number 1 in Figure 1. According to this narrative, the US was a leader along both dimensions, but that something went wrong in the downstream processes.

But to tell the full story of the United States, we need to go back to the 18th century, when this country was a follower along both dimensions. The pivotal change came with the passage of the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the principle of having a land grant university in every state. The second pivot, which comes after WWII, is marked by Bush's report. The driving force in this new era was a dramatic expansion of Federal support for basic scientific research and a turn away from the mandate of the Morrill Act: "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe." The post-WWII system was a shift from teaching to research, from problem solving to fundamental inquiry, and state to federal control. To illustrate this practical focus, my late Stanford colleague, Nathan Rosenberg, used to remind his students that the football team at Purdue is known as the Boilermakers because students in its engineering school did research on a fully operational steam locomotive railroad engine kept at the school in the 1890s. Another example that Nate used to emphasize the role of local control over the lines of inquiry at the land grant schools was the development by researchers at the University of Minnesota of the pelletization process that was essential for full exploitation of the state's iron ore deposits.

The possibility suggested in the figure by the blue arrows labeled with the number 2 is that the story of the US after WWII may best be understood as a traverse from leadership in technology to leadership in basic science. We were briefly in the box in the upper right as a leader in both science and technology, but we were only passing through. For a time, we could keep exploiting the capital that delivered technological progress as it depreciated.

Another of Nate's revealing illustrations of the sharp change in our national innovation system after WWII comes from Chemistry. In the first few decades of twentieth century, scientists working in the US received almost no Nobel prizes. In Chemistry, the leading nations were Germany and the UK. But it was in this era that the United States moved into a position of worldwide dominance of the petrochemical industry. Moreover, it is not hard to understand how the US was so successful. Our practically oriented universities, which focused on their educational mission, introduced a new discipline, chemical engineering, that was taught in a new type of professional school.

So for me, the story of the US in the last 120 years is the story of the traverse from technological leadership to scientific leadership. From this perspective, the challenge now is not to invent a new strategy for being the worldwide technological leader. It is to revive the strategy that worked before, and in so doing, to find a better balance between the policies that foster basic scientific leadership and the ones that encourage technological leadership. This nation can do both, but it will not do both if the advocates for basic science always get their way in any policy decision.

In uncharted seas, maps once warned "Here, there be dragons." Figure 1 warns that "Here, there be tradeoffs."

3 Listening to Other Voices

There are many details behind the suggestions that I will outline. To keep my remarks short, I summarize very briefly two papers that I wrote on how to restore some of the advantageous features of our pre-WWII national innovation system. Then in the final section, I will offer three general principles that can guide other changes we could make.

The two papers, which are attached as Appendix A and B, try to create mechanisms that will feed insights from industrial users of technology and from aspiring students of science and engineering into the decisions on university campuses. Their insights should supplement the insights provided by the successful scientists who dominate in a system where universities compete for research funds provided by the federal government. Before those well-established scientist crank up their habitual attack on "meddling by outsiders," let me be clear that in these two papers, I do not suggest any encroachment on their domain of influence, nor any reduction in the funds that they receive from the federal government. All I suggest is that we provide financial support to universities in some additional ways.

The way I propose for giving an industry some influence over decisions made on campus is to give it the power to collect funds from all firms in the industry and to use the proceeds to support research and educational programs that will benefit the industry. The corresponding way to give students a voice is to bring back the system that prevailed before WWII, in which students who paid tuition could decide where they studied and what they studied. Under this system, universities competed for tuition revenue by introducing such new courses of study as chemical and electrical engineering. The way to do this today and simultaneously to encourage more US citizens who pursue a graduate education is for the federal government to create a large number of portable fellowships that are rewarded to the most talented undergraduates. These fellowships should cover both living expenses and generous tuition charges for three full years of graduate education. The fellowships should be portable in the sense that a recipient could use it to pursue any degree program in science and engineering at any university.

I know from the discussions that followed my paper on portable fellowships, which included discussions with staff and members of Congress that led to the introduction of a bill that provided for these fellowships, that the leading research universities and the advocates for basic science opposed this new additional source of funding. This is why I suggested before that the right decision for the nation might mean that the advocates for basic science do not get their way. The National Defense Education Act (NDEA), passed in 1958, created a fellowship program that was similar in spirit to the one I propose. Over time, that program was replaced by one that the professors in research universities, as the principle investigators on research grants, preferred. Instead of giving funds directly to students and letting them make their own decisions, the funding agencies gave money to professors, who supported graduate students by hiring them to work on the research projects that the professors wanted to work on. I am not persuaded, but a reasonable person could claim that the shift to unilateral control by principle investigators is the best way to support basic science. But what cannot be denied is that giving the professors unilateral control deprived aspiring scientists and engineers, many of whom would end up working in industry, of any say in the graduate educational programs that they could pursue on the nation's university campuses. It deprived the nation of the type of educational innovation that led to the creation of schools of chemical engineering.

Even if the Congress comes up with new money to provide the type of fellowships I propose -- fellowships that empower aspiring scientists and engineers-- and even if the Congress holds constant the funds that agencies can give as research grants to professors, I can assure you that the leaders of the scientific community, who are based in a few dominant research institutions, will not welcome these new fellowships. My message to them: "There be tradeoffs here." What is best for you may not be best for the nation.

4 General Principles

I will close by offering some general principles that could help guide us back toward leadership in both basic science achievement and in technological progress, back toward a system that is a hybrid between the one that brought the US to worldwide preeminence in industrial technology before WWII and the one that displaced when the federal government took control and gave so much autonomy to professors.

  1. People are what matter, not papers or patents
  2. Achieve robustness via competition
  3. Protect scientific integrity by separating the roles of decision-maker and fact-finder

The first of these is a general principle that I inferred after my inquiries into science and technology policy. The next two are more recent. They reflect the lessons I learned from the failure of our regulatory system in the run-up to the financial crisis. (In Appendix C, I attach a third paper prompted by the financial crisis.) These last two have, to my surprise, been reinforced by the failures that are now evident in our failed response to the pandemic.

4.1 People are what matter, not papers or patents

The most important outputs produced by the nations universities are well trained people. People working in many different organizations can write papers and apply for patents. The unique contribution that universities can make to the nation is to give the most talented young people a chance to acquire the skills, the confidence, the habits of mind that will allow some of them to make outstanding contributions either to basic science or to technological progress, or to both. The Morill Act and the NDEA rewarded universities for making these investments in people. Today, we should look for new ways to reward these investments once again and we should make sure that the educational programs offered by universities respond to the opportunities that students perceive.

4.2 Achieve robustness via competition

Part of the genius of the Morrill Act is that it did not try to create a world beating national university. It build a system of many different competing universities. After the introduction of the centralized federal role in WWII, this has evolved toward one dominated by a handful of winners. The NDEA included a system for allocating its fellowships that prevented the leaders of the day from growing stronger at the expense of the followers. In effect, the NDEA fellowship program included a competition policy that kept a few powerful institutions from dominating the national innovation system.

We should copy this feature of the NDEA fellowship program in any new system that supports universities. And we should extend the insight that motivated this approach and the design implicit in the Morrill Act. We should rely on the states. We should encourage many voices. One of the problems that we now see with the federal system for protecting health is that it gave monopoly powers to the FDA and the CDC. In so doing, we created what the engineers call single points of failure in our defense against viral pathogens. Instead of further concentrating power in these dominant agencies, we should have the courage to bet on the states as the Morrill Act did, to build up stronger departments of health in each of the states and defer to the states on such critical decisions as what types of tests to deploy for identifying a dangerous viral pathogen.

If we can trust state governments to run universities, we can trust them to regulate tests.

4.3 Protect scientific integrity by separating the roles of decision-maker and fact-finder

One of the most useful and under-appreciated innovations in the US system of governance is the division of labor between the FAA, which makes regulatory decisions about aviation, and the National Transportation Safety Board, which is responsible for establishing the facts after any accident.

There is an inevitable tendency for an agency that has to make technical decisions to report to the public a version of the facts that supports its decisions. These agencies turn into advocates for specific positions. In the process, they lose their scientific objectivity. During this pandemic, we have seen several important instances where agencies that were responsible for difficult real-time decisions that were central to our pandemic response -- the CDC, the FDA, and the WHO -- justified their decisions by presenting the public with a biased or misleading summary of the facts.

There are now four important questions on which informed observers now question the factual answers provided by these agencies:

  1. Do masks limit the spread of the virus?
  2. Do people who are infected by the SARS-CoV-2 virus but do not currently show symptoms cause a substantial fraction of its transmission?
  3. Does the virus spread through the air mainly via large droplets or also through smaller aerosol particles?
  4. Does a policy of testing for the virus and isolating those who test positive reduce the spread of the virus?

I will not try to summarize the evidence that bears on these four questions. Nor will I try second guess the policy decisions by these agencies that were tied to the answers they provided to these four questions.

However, as someone who has spent a great deal of time trying to understand the facts and the positions taken by the different parties in the debates about the facts, I will report that there are credible scientists who now have grave concerns about the scientific integrity of the messages that these agencies have conveyed to the public.

The risk here is not just that a biased reading of the facts will lead to bad decisions or hinder reconsideration of those decisions as new evidence comes in. The far more troubling concern is that well informed people have stopped believing the assertions of fact that these agencies make and that their skepticism is fueling a broader distrust of authority by those who are not as well informed.

To make progress, we have to base our decisions on the facts. If voters do not trust scientific authorities, our democracy will not be able to base our public policy decisions on the facts.

There are many possible ways to divide up the responsibility for making decisions about public health between states and the Federal government. And many possible places where we could assign to some other, independent agency the role of finder of fact. What would not make sense is to create many different copies of the CDC or the FDA at the state level, each of which continues to have conflicting responsibilities to make decisions and provide a clear statement of an evolving pattern of facts to the public.

Appendix A

Implementing a National Technology Strategy with Self-Organizing Industry Investment Boards

Published in: Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 1993, No. 2.

Appendix B

Should the Government Subsidize Supply or Demand in the Market for Scientists and Engineers?

Published in: Innovation Policy and the Economy, Volume 1, Adam B. Jaffe, Josh Lerner and Scott Stern, editors, MIT Press 2001.

Appendix C

Process, Responsibility, and Myrons Law

Published in: In the Wake of the Crisis: Leading Economists Reassess Economic Policy, edited by Olivier Blanchard, David Romer, Michael Spence, Joseph E. Stiglitz, The MIT Press, 2012.