U.S. Innovation On the Skids

Technologists look to a new administration to reverse setbacks in long-term research.

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"The pattern is inexorable," says Alan Porter, one of the authors of the study. "China is coming up strongly, and it's in high-tech areas, not just cheap consumer goods." China's rise is aided by an authoritarian government, low wages and a good manufacturing base, he says, but that isn't all. "You see tremendous effort in research in China," Porter says. "The U.S. and China are neck and neck in basic science."

"We have kind of lost our way in some respects," says Vinton Cerf, chief Internet evangelist at Google Inc. and another Internet pioneer. "We have a significant diminution of industrial long-term research in IT, and we have seen one of the major federal sources of IT research -- DARPA -- essentially withdraw from a lot of that."

Cerf says he doesn't like the word competitiveness because it suggests an adversarial relationship. He'd prefer that scientists and engineers work across borders to collaborate openly and publish their results.

Cerf suggests that the new administration should encourage immigration by the most talented science and engineering students. "They are the creme de la creme, because they can't get in otherwise," he says. "Maybe they [ultimately] go home, and maybe they stay, but they contribute mightily to the health of research and add a great deal of value to U.S. research initiatives."

Henry Chesbrough shares that goal. "We are losing our ability to attract the best and brightest at the graduate level to come to the U.S.," says the executive director of the Center for Open Innovation at the University of California, Berkeley. "There are two reasons," he explains. "Our concerns about security and immigration have caused us to be perceived as less welcoming. And the options back in the home countries are better than they have ever been. So at precisely the time we need to be more competitive to attract and keep these people, we are pushing them away."

But attracting bright Ph.D. students is just one challenge; funding their work is another. According to the AAAS, total federal funding for R&D at universities has risen slightly recently, but, adjusted for inflation, that amount has declined in each of the past two years.

Kleinrock says he is troubled by how campus researchers are forced to take a pragmatic view to win short-term funding from DARPA. "They don't stop to ask what's behind the results they get," he says. "They are not being pushed to get a fundamental understanding; they are looking for the answers now, for this system, for today."

He says he worries that this short-term view of science will propagate from professor to student in a way that weakens subsequent generations of researchers.

Of course, given the current economic turmoil, most everyone sees other critical needs pushing R&D even further down the list of federal priorities. "Yes," Chesbrough admits, "that's going to make this deferred gratification even more difficult to accomplish."

This is a print version of a Computerworld story that originally ran online. To read the original, more comprehensive version with associated links, please click here.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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