Dr. Cathleen Fisher, Executive Director of the American Friends of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in Washington DC, USA.
By Cathleen Fisher
The Obama administration’s policy and budgetary initiatives are exciting news for researchers in America. As outlined in the President’s recent address to the National Academy of Sciences, the administration wants to restore the investment in research and development to over three percent of the United States’ gross domestic product and boost science and technology funding with a huge stimulus package. The administration wants to promote clean energy and climate initiatives, including 150 billion dollars over ten years for clean energy and efficiency. Obama is also pushing new health initiatives, including computerization of medical records and 6 billion dollars over the next ten years toward a doubling of support for cancer research.
For Germany, the renewed enthusiasm in the United States for science and research offers both challenges and opportunities. The sense of excitement in the U.S. science community is palpable. Though many scientists worry that the current boom in science funding cannot be sustained, many are happy to have a “science-friendly” administration that is looking to scientists to help the United States tackle long-deferred problems in energy, climate and health. Since the announcement of stimulus funding for science, researchers around the country have been busy preparing proposals to the various federal funding agencies, with the National Institutes of Health alone reporting the submission of over 20,000 proposals by its May deadline.
In the near term, it could be more difficult to persuade U.S.-based scientists, particularly those benefitting from stimulus funding, to consider an overseas research stay. On the other hand, the administration’s science initiatives create opportunities for German funding organizations. Strong proposals for example, may still go unfunded in the U.S. And the Obama administration’s research priorities in many respects resemble the goals of the German High-Tech Strategy. Given Germany’s longer-term investment and advances in climate, energy, environment and health, U.S. scientists could see real advantages in research exchange with Germany.
Sustainability of research support is a key issue in both Germany and the United States, however. The near-term budgetary outlook for science and technology funding is positive in both the United States and Germany. The critical issue for both countries is whether the investment can and will be sustained. In his remarks to the National Academy of Sciences, President Obama pledged to exceed the investment made at the height of the space race “through policies that invest in basic and applied research, create new incentives for private innovation, promote breakthroughs in energy and medicine, and improve education in math and science”, in what he characterized as “the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history”. A critical question for both the United States and Germany, however, is whether the political will to invest in science and education can be sustained in light of the global economic recession.
There are two other long-term challenges for both U.S. and German science funders. First, much cutting-edge research is being done at the convergence of disciplines, while academic recruiting and research funding too often remains “siloed” along disciplinary boundaries. Second, teamwork, often interdisciplinary, is more important than ever where scientists are working to solve big societal problems like energy or climate, raising questions about research support that is tailored to the individual scientist. Both trends challenge conventional ways of thinking about research promotion, for example, the emphasis on disciplines rather than research areas or problems, or the focus on the quality of the individual researcher rather than small teams of excellence. Both U.S. and German funding agencies may be forced to adapt their structures or processes to these significant changes in the way that science is done.
In the meantime, U.S. scientists are celebrating an inspiring beginning and looking forward to exhilarating times in science and research.
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