President's Message

Stepping up the federal government's role in basic research by Charles Steger '69

Earlier this year, the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation, a coalition of high-tech companies, higher-education groups, and scientific societies, called on the federal government to increase its investments in basic research lest our nation "lose its leadership role in science and innovation." I echo these sentiments.

In the task force's statement, John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers and former governor of Michigan, noted, "Other countries are climbing the technology ladder just as eagerly as we are. The only way the U.S. can continue to create high-wage, high-value-added jobs is to innovate faster than the rest of the world."

Virginia Tech is making progress on its research agenda--sponsored research awards to our faculty are up 35 percent at the end of the third quarter. We are succeeding in aligning our strengths with those of national initiatives, such as biodefense, telecommunications, IT, and energy-related technologies. But the national trend for declining investments in basic science and exploratory research is not good.

Burruss Hall

Today's frontier research is the basis for tomorrow's economic strength and national security. Such research is now the province of federal labs and the academic researcher. Remember Ma Bell? There was a time--before today's college students were born--when Bell Labs (now part of Lucent), IBM, DuPont, and other larger companies were an important source of innovation. Indeed, Bell Labs created the primary building block of the information age, the transistor.

"Companies in the past had large corporate research labs," says Richard Turner, director of the Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute at Virginia Tech and formerly of Eastman Chemical Company. "Now, focused industrial research labs have replaced corporate labs and most efforts go toward improving existing products."

But the U.S. government has not stepped into the gap, even though other countries' governments are investing in research. China, Taiwan, and South Korea increased their investments by about 140 percent from 1995 to 2001, while the U.S. only increased its investment by 34 percent. And although China intends to increase its spending on the basic sciences by 200 percent over the next 10 years, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (an international trade and development agency), the FY 2006 U.S. federal budget would cut funding for key R&D programs and leave federal R&D investments in key areas flat or declining. According to the task-force report, U.S. federal funding of basic research in engineering and physical sciences has experienced little or no growth over the past 30 years.

Sometimes it is hard to see the connection between basic research and real-world benefits. But here at Virginia Tech, the linkage is clear. For example, basic research under Harry Dorn in the Department of Chemistry and Rick Claus in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has resulted in nanotechnology breakthroughs. Dorn ingeniously discovered how to insert metal atoms inside the hollow carbon molecule known as a buckyball (dubbed in honor of 20th-century futurist Buckminster Fuller) and how to produce production-grade quantities of the new family of molecules.

Luna Innovations (one of the companies started by former Virginia Tech professor Kent Murphy) opened a facility in Danville, Va., that will use Dorn's invention for multiple applications, such as MRI tests, stain-resistant textiles, lubricants, fuel-cell components, and others. In the process, the company will create many jobs in an area of the state desperately in need of good economic news. Meanwhile, Claus developed a novel electrostatic self-assembly process to create multilayered (molecule by molecule) thin films. Such films are the basis for a successful Blacksburg-based firm, Nanosonic Inc.

In his letter to President Bush that called for a tripling of "the innovation budget--federal basic research and development over the next decade," U.S. Representative Frank Wolfe of Virginia wrote:

Federal research support serves two essential purposes. First, it supports the research required to fuel continued innovations and economic growth. Second, because much of it takes place at the nation's colleges and universities, it plays a critical role in training our next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and others who will comprise the future scientific and technological workforce. ... Investing in research and development is a critical part of optimizing our nation for innovation, a process that will require strong leadership and involvement from government, industry, academia, and labor. We must choose whether to innovate or abdicate.

I urge us all--not just the leaders of scientific societies, academe, or industry--to support a national agenda of federal investment in basic research at our universities and national labs. Our livelihood tomorrow may well depend on federal investments made today.