Science’s rightful place is in service of society

Daniel Sarewitz in Nature:

DanielsarewitzAmid the mess of US politics — a pointless government shut-down, across-the-board cuts, endless partisan squabbling — now is a good moment to take stock of the fate of publicly funded science. After all, five years ago next week Barack Obama was first elected president, promising that he would “restore science to its rightful place” in US society. How has he done? Pretty well — and the ongoing budget crisis might be the most important reason. When there is no new money to throw at science, the only way to improve its social value is to tighten how the old money is spent. And science policies under Obama are beginning to add up to a strategy to correct the greatest weakness of the US research enterprise: the isolation of the conduct of science from its use in society.

In biomedicine, the doubling of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget between 1998 and 2003 did not reduce the stunningly high failure rates and costs of drug development. To confront this problem, the Obama administration created the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences (NCATS), which was approved by Congress in December 2011. Central to NCATS’ vision, says NIH director Francis Collins, are partnerships between “government, academia, philanthropy, patient advocates, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to overcome translational roadblocks and offer solutions to detect, treat and prevent disease”. Despite forecasts of doom, basic science in the United States stands preeminent, as shown by the ongoing harvest of Nobel prizes. But where is the pay-off for the rest of society? The bankruptcy of Detroit in Michigan, once the world auto-industry capital, underscores the need for new science-based technology sectors to create jobs for millions of people, yet it also makes apparent the lack of connection between scientific excellence and economic well-being. To help close this gap, the Obama administration last year created the National Additive Manufacturing Institute. Focused on three-dimensional printing, it is located in the ‘rust belt’ city of Youngstown, Ohio, and was launched with a US$30-million government contribution matched by corporate funds. In May, the president announced three more manufacturing institutes, each to be “a regional hub designed to bridge the gap between basic research and product development, bringing together companies, universities and community colleges, and federal agencies to co-invest in technology areas”.

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