US innovation: On the skids

Technologists look to a new White House to reverse decade-long slide in R&D

And the jobs of university researchers aren't so hot these days either, as professors and graduate students scramble for federal funds. "Faculty spend their careers writing proposals now. They don't get funded. The hit rates are low. People put in 20 proposals in a year," Farber says.

"Once you reduce university research, you are really mortgaging your future, because the way you train new scientists is by apprenticeships at graduate schools," he adds.

Where will the apprentices turn? "Eventually, we could all be hamburger flippers, or Wall Street brokers, if there are any left," Farber says.

Washington watch

The refocus from long-term research to shorter-term development in industry -- and Bell Labs is by no means the only example -- has been mirrored by a similar trend among the Washington agencies that fund science and technology, such as the Departments of Defense and Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. Federal funding for R&D has not declined overall -- it has, in fact, increased. But since the early 1990s, funding has been more and more focused on the short-term needs of government.

In particular, critics say, under the George W. Bush administration, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- which gave birth to the Internet, computer timesharing, computer graphics, LANs and much more -- has concentrated its research on short-term needs for warfare and homeland security. DARPA funding now tends to go to those who can promise measurable results in a year or two.

"DARPA funding has become short term, applications-oriented, highly competitive -- with small amounts of money and lots of reporting requirements," says Leonard Kleinrock, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an Internet pioneer in the 1960s. "That does not engender quality research."

Kleinrock recalls an earlier DARPA that would bring in extremely bright program managers and give them generous funding and carte blanche to pursue basic research in projects that could go on for many years, often with no promise of tangible results.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a recent bulletin to its members about the federal budget, said, "Although high-priority investments in physical sciences research, weapons development and human space exploration help to keep the federal R&D outlook brighter than the bleak outlook for domestic programs overall, the FY 2009 budget continues the recent trends of declining federal support for research."

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