Who are the actors and what are the mechanisms involved in setting United States science policy today?

The claim that “science policy-making is a messy process… more than almost any other type of federal policy-making” is an astute one. The science policy-making process, brought about through the engagement and interaction of numerous congressional committees, federal agencies, and actors within the administration, can involve nearly the entire government. Science policy may be made through executive or legislative branch action, sometimes happens as a result of the budget process – itself involving multiple entities – and may also come about through the actions of individuals working on and implementing decisions at various levels in federal agencies. As such, there is no single way that science policy is made in the United States of America, though multiple mechanisms for it are easily identifiable.

Congress, the United States’ legislative body, is comprised of multiple committees and actors with jurisdictional oversight on particular parts of the United States’ scientific effort. Committees review and proposed legislation and establish guidelines for the President’s budget submission. In the context of science policy, authorizing committees produce bills that can set particular science policies and policy direction, establish the creation of federal agencies and programs that would be involved in science work and policy, and may recommend funding levels for those agencies and programs. Appropriations committees produce legislation that approves the expenditure of funds for federal agencies and programs.  Meanwhile, the Senate as a whole has power to approve or disapprove presidential nominees, including those for positions in charge of setting and executing science policies.

The mechanisms that Congress uses to shape science policy are diverse. Congress may propose bills and approve laws that outline science policies and priorities, directing the government to pursue particular science goals or utilize certain approaches. Past legislative action in the realm of science policy includes the authorization of large projects such as the Space Station and the Human Genome Project, laws such as the Patent and Trademark Law Amendment Act, which provided a framework for commercializing innovations generated by federally funded research, and the USA PATRIOT ACT, which restricts access to certain biological research agents. Through laws “authorizing” federal agencies, Congress may change agency statutes – thereby affecting the science programs and priorities they hold. NASA authorization bills, for example, have directed the agency to achieve particular exploration goals such as its current campaign of human missions to Mars. Alternative, report language, documents which clarify Congressional committee intent beyond bill language, may provide further guidance to agencies so as to influence science policy.

Congress has the power of oversight, through which it sees that legislation it passed is carried out to its intent. This is an indirect method of influencing science policy and the science policy-making process. Hearings involving key individuals in agencies or others in the scientific world can be used to address particular Congressional concerns or ideas. Letters to agencies can be used to pressure them into executing the science policies established through legislation. Funding reports, sent to appropriations committees, can request that studies be conducted examining operations of an agency. These methods are often used to ensure agency officials are responsive to concerns raised – as Congress controls the funding levels of the agencies and may thereby cut funds if “unhappy,” agency officials are often receptive and responsive to the issues raised in hearings, letters, reports, and studies.

Perhaps most significantly, Congress has the power of “the purse” – the ability to set and pass budgets. The budget process plays a critical role in the formation of science policy; the enactment of any program or policy ultimately relies on the availability of funds. Though the President proposes budgets to Congress, it is Congress’ prerogative to approve it or, as is more often the case, reject it and craft its own. In funding bills, Congress may fund broad science priorities, increase or decrease funding for particular science projects, “earmark” particular research projects based in an influential member’s home district, lower the budgets of agencies with which it is not pleased, “kill” science programs by not funding them, among myriad other fiscal actions which ultimately have a major impact on science in the United States.

The executive branch, too, has the power to influence science policy. The President may issue a “presidential directive,” such as an executive order, which can encourage or prohibit federal agencies from taking part in specific activities, such as banning funding for human cloning or stem cell research.  Executive orders can establish advisory councils involved in science policy, as was done for the National Science and Technology Council and the President’s Council of Advisors and Science and Technology. Executive orders may also clarify administration policies, focusing agency attention on particular science issues and topics that the administration would like to address. The President also has the power to nominate individuals to key positions, such as the directorship of the OSTP, NSF, and EPA, the administrator of NASA, and the secretaries of multiple cabinet positions involved in science policy, such as Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, and Commerce. As these individuals are then largely responsible for developing and executing science policy, this is a powerful method through which the President can influence the process.

Executive branch offices and panels, such as the Office of Science and Technology Policy, may make decisions that sizably impact the scientific community; setting, for example, direction for science policy across agencies through circulars and interagency memos. They also support multiagency policy initiatives such as climate change research. These offices frequently produce panel studies and written reports which can increase public awareness of a particular science issue and which are used to advise the president, Congress, and the agencies on science policy solutions.

The President, with support from the Office of Management and Budget, crafts and proposes budgets to Congress. Federal agencies submit their funding requests to OMB, appealing for particular programs and priorities to be funded at full or higher levels. This budget request is a means by which agencies make its scientific priorities known to the individuals responsible for that agency’s funding in OMB. OMB then advises the President on and supports him in crafting his budget proposal; the President then submits his budget to the Congress. As OMB is influential in the realm of government funding, it can therefore wield significant influence over scientific research; it may set limits on funding for key science projects, for example, or prioritize a particular agency for heightened funding over others in the constrained funding environment.

The federal agencies themselves have multiple mechanisms for influencing science policy. As they are given a great deal of flexibility in their operations, they may shape science policy through their own internal policies and operational approaches. Accounting practices, for example, may ultimately impact scientific portfolios; the same is true with agency-internal priority-setting guidelines. To that end, the individuals in charge of agencies can have significant impact on science policy by shaping the way their agency is run.

Critically, agencies award research funds to various institutions and organizations; these funds are a significant part of the United States’ overall research endeavor. Mission-oriented agencies which focus on particular topic areas, such as the Department of Energy or NASA, provide funds to institutions such as universities through competitively-selected, peer-reviewed grants and awards. The National Science Foundation, though not an agency, also supports a broad range of research through grants and contracts. The process of soliciting, evaluating, and awarding grants is a major method of executing science policy and, by virtue of its competitive nature, can shape it to focus on particular forms and topic areas of research.

Finally, agencies may issue regulations and rules which guide and constrain research activities, which can significantly impact the country’s scientific activity. For example, the USDA’s regulations in part define how animals may be used in research. Regulations are in large part agency interpretations and clarifications of passed law, and as such can shape the way science policy is defined and implemented.

These are just a selection of the actors and mechanisms working to shape science-policy making in the United States. The media, focusing attention on particular science issues and building public support or opposition to science projects or problems, plays a major role in influencing policy. So too do trade associations and industry groups which rely upon particular forms of research, development, and government funding.


What is the nature of the United States’ university research system and what makes it unique?

The United States’ university research system, with its strong linkages to the federal government, multitude of available sources for funding of its research, and close interactions between students, faculty, and research, has long been singularly unique compared to the systems of other developed countries. The manner by which the United States’ university research system is set up makes it a major element of the country’s overall research endeavor, especially when compared to universities in other countries. As such, other countries have begun to reform their university research funding system in recent years, modelling them after the United States’.

American universities have, since the late 19th century, been pushed to accept greater responsibility for the national economy, national security, and the welfare for the country’s citizens; as such, they have become far more closely involved in the scientific research underlying progress in those realms than analogous institutions in other countries. Laws, such as the Morrill Act and the Smith-Lever Act, established direct linkages between universities (such as the agriculture and mechanical arts (A&M) schools) and the government in pursuit of particular fields of research supporting industry. These linkages have only strengthened in recent history, particularly following World War 2 when a heightened national emphasis was placed on research and development.

American universities, particularly research universities, often have specialized instruments, advanced equipment, and labs that can be provided to their faculty, graduate students, and research scientists. This research infrastructure is often supported through external grants or federal funds and allows for cutting-edge scientific discovery and development.

A fundamentally unique element of the American university system, one that has been a key element of its success, is the intimate connection between faculty, students, and research. Unlike the university systems in other countries, where faculty members (professors) and researchers are separate people, faculty members in the United States both teach and drive scientific research. Because of this arraignment, their students, commonly graduate students, participate in and perform much of the day-to-day research work; this contrasts too with other universities in countries, where graduate students often do not participate in hands-on, day-to-day research.

Working in conjunction with their professors, students must pursue original research for their degree, allowing for innovative new approaches to scientific problems as they can focus on specific topics and are particularly motivated to pursue their project’s specified goals. This, in turn, increases the rate of publications stemming from a university’s research projects as well as the size and number of grants awarded to the university to conduct research. It also provides American graduate students with hands-on research knowledge and expertise, which they can then carry on to industry or academia. All in all, this allows for a more robust and rigorous research endeavor.

Postdoctoral researchers and research scientists play key roles in the university system and university research. Postdocs typically seek internships or fellowships at institutions where they participate in day-to-day work of research; having already had a breadth of experience in research to achieve their PhD, they make use their experience to advance a new research topic or apply a new technique. They are thereby responsible for much of the productivity in the American science realms. Research scientists, supported generally by external research grants rather than university funds, conduct advance research at universities without the burden of teaching or administrative duties, allowing them to focus more often and heavily on their research work. As both postdoctoral researchers and research scientists rely on project funding for support and continued research, they must constantly seek new research topics for funding proposals. While this entails that they have only marginal job security at best, it does have the positive result that new research topics are constantly being thought about, proposed, and eventually investigated. It allows for the competitive “marketplace of ideas” underlying federal funding for university research.

Since World War 2, significant federal funding for research has been provided to American universities, uniquely fueling the country’s science and engineering sectors and serving as a key component of its advanced education and innovation initiatives. Universities compete for federal funding through grants and awards, which is provided to select institutions based on the comparative merit of their proposed research idea. Through this funding, the government shares in both the direct costs, such as paying for salaries, equipment, and supplies, and indirect costs of performing the research. This greatly abets the university system in procuring the tools and infrastructure needed for and fiscally sustaining high-quality and innovative research.

Another rather unique aspect of the United States’ university research system is the manner in which it deals with intellectual property. As universities are engaged in advanced research and development, the products of their work have huge application in the private marketplace and in benefit of society. Many universities have offices of technology transfer or offices of intellectual property which manage the process of transferring university-developed technologies to the private sector; some institutions, such as the University of Michigan, even make such technology transfer a core part of their mission. By selling, licensing, or patenting technologies or research, universities may recover the investments of its project or support future research while making that property available to society. The impact of this technology transfer is enormous – since 1980, more than 5,000 start-up companies have been formed on the basis of research conducted at and technologies developed by universities.

A key law, the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act of 1980, helped institute the common-day practices of university IP and tech transfer. Prior to its passage, the products of federally funded research were owned by the federal government; there was no uniform policy on IP transfer, so industries tended to avoid going through the process to acquire university-produced research. Since the law, universities own the intellectual property they produce, even that funded by federal funding. This has provided a major impetus for universities to enhance and expand their technology transfer efforts and has led to a more widespread commercialization of products that come out of advanced research.

The basic structure of the U.S. system for university research and for providing support for that research, as described above, is unique. The strong reliance on peer review and the multitude of sources for funding specific research activities has enabled unparalleled success in university-conducted research. The success of the U.S. system of university research funding has made it a model for other countries as they work on their own systems.

A primary reason for this modeling is that the United States’ funding system supports a broad diversity of highest-quality research through the way grants, awards, and funding is selected. University faculty members with a novel idea can “shop” that idea to numerous agencies for possible funding. One topic may be of interest to multiple agencies, one of which could eventually provide funding even if the others don’t. Few other countries have this diversity of funding sources – a researcher may not be able to get their project funded if the single agency responsible for scientific funding isn’t interested. This can have a significant impact on the amount of and diversity of topics in research taking place in other countries.

The United States funds its university research on a competitive basis. Only the best proposals or the schools with the best facilities, researchers, and equipment for a particular type of research are likely to win an award. This competitive funding means that, generally, the highest-quality and highest-impact research is what will be funded. This contrasts starkly with numerous other countries, where funding is provided to universities on an egalitarian basis. As such, other countries’ funding is not always selectively targeting the best proposals or the best researchers for the job, which can lower the standards, performance, and quality of the research that ends up being conducted.