Machine Design

How to spend $140 billion on R&D

The White House just released its 2013 budget for Science and Technology R&D — $140.8 billion — and any way you slice it that’s a lot of cash. It seems like good news, assuming that an investment in R&D delivers a long-term payoff in technological advances, leading innovations, high-paying jobs, and world-class products.

According to the Office of Science and Technology Policy, the R&D budget looks to promote sustainable economic growth, advance American manufacturing, cultivate home-grown clean energy, improve health care and lower its cost, and address the mounting challenges of global climate change. No doubt, all laudable goals. So where does all the money go?

Let’s look at the National Science Foundation, a well-respected organization slated to get a paltry $5.9 billion next year. According the NSF Web site, for more than 60 years it’s had a profound impact on “transformative, fundamental” research that has led to path-breaking advances such as bar codes, Web browsers, and search engines. The site contains an A-to-Z list of hundreds of research opportunities it funds, on subjects from aeronomy, algebra, artists, and Atacama to well being, writers, and zone. Within each category are dozens of currently funded programs. Here’s a random look at just a few of the R&D grants:

$199,760 — A Retrospective Oral History of Computer Simulation. An investigator at North Carolina State Univ. will document the emergence of the field of computer simulation since World War II.

$96,000 — Cattle Feed Efficiency Data Technician. Colby Community College will train students to use the GrowSafe system, which electronically monitors what cattle eat.

$1,616,125 — Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears in the K-5 Classroom. Ohio State Univ. researchers hope to “maximize the impact of International Polar Year on elementary classrooms by capturing student interest and fostering the ability of elementary-school teachers to integrate polar concepts into their teaching.”

$30,000 — International Gender and Language Assn. Student Travel. Travel grants for 15 Univ. of California-Santa Barbara graduate students to present their research and gain professional experience at the International Gender and Language Assn. conference to be held this June in Brazil.

$349,820 — Bridging the Gap Between Engineers and Society: Learning to Listen. This Virginia Polytechnic project will explore the relationships between engineering, science, and society, and teach engineers to acknowledge and listen to the voices of the communities they serve.

$1,206,278 — Climate Literacy Zoo Education Network. The Chicago Zoological Society will develop a new approach to climate-change education that connects zoo visitors to polar animals endangered by global warming. Goals include conducting research to understand the preconceptions and attitudes of zoo visitors regarding climate change.

$24,000 — Maurice Auslander International Conference. Last but not least, support for Northeastern Univ.’s conference on the work of this influential mathematician, widely known for creating the Auslander-Reiten theory.

I’m sure all of these projects involve honest, hard-working people with good intent, but we’re not exactly talking about breakthroughs in nanotechnology, fusion energy, or solar-cell efficiency. Assuming the NSF spends its money as wisely as other government entities, one gets the sense we need to better target critical national priorities.

— Kenneth J. Korane, Managing Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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