Science policy of the United States

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The United States has a long history of government support for science and technology.

Agencies involved in science policy[edit]

Science policy in the United States is the responsibility of many organizations throughout the federal government. Much of the large-scale policy is made through the legislative budget process of enacting the yearly federal budget, although there are other legislative issues that directly involve science, such as energy policy, climate change, and stem cell research. Further decisions are made by the various federal agencies which spend the funds allocated by Congress, either on in-house research or by granting funds to outside organizations and researchers.

Legislating science policy[edit]

In the Executive Office of the President, the main body advising the president on science policy is the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Other advisory bodies exist within the Executive Office of the President, including the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and the National Science and Technology Council.

In the United States Congress, a number of congressional committees have jurisdiction over legislation on science policy, most notably the House Committee on Science and Technology and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and their subcommittees. These committees oversee the various federal research agencies that are involved in receiving funding for scientific research. Oversight of some agencies may fall under multiple committees, for example the Environmental Protection Agency.[1]

There are also Congressional support agencies, which do not solely focus on science, but provide insight for Congress to make decisions dealing with scientific issues. These agencies are nonpartisan and provide objective reports on topics requested by members of congress. They are the Congressional Research Service, Government Accountability Office, and Congressional Budget Office. In the past, the Office of Technology Assessment provided Congressional members and committees with objective analysis of scientific and technical issues, but this office was abolished as a result of the Republican Revolution of 1994.

Further advice is provided by extragovernmental organizations such as The National Academies, which was created and mostly funded by the federal government,[2] and the RAND Corporation, as well as other non-profit organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society among others.

Executing science policy[edit]

There are a number of federal agencies across the government which carry out science policy. Some of these primarily perform their own research, such as:

In addition, the federally funded research and development centers, which include most of the U.S. National Laboratories, are funded by the government but operated by universities, non-profit organizations, or for-profit consortia.

Finally, many government agencies exist to grant funds to external organizations or individual researchers. These include:

There are also a number of state and local agencies which deal with state-specific science policy and provide additional funding, such as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Research and development in the federal budget[edit]

Federal funding of basic plus applied research by year. The spike in 2009 is due to the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. Figures for 2014 are requested levels.[3]
The research and development budget in the Obama administration's federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2015.[3]

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Research and development funding in the federal budget is not centrally enacted, but is spread across many appropriations bills which are enacted in the annual United States budget process. Of the twelve annual appropriations bills, the most important for R&D are those for Defense; Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (which includes NIH); Commerce, Justice, and Science (which includes NSF, NASA, NIST, and NOAA); and Energy and Water Development. Other appropriations bills include smaller amounts of R&D funding.

Only a small percentage of the overall federal budget is allocated to R&D. As of 2009, just over half of the R&D budget was allocated to defense spending.[4] Government funding for research into defense-related technological research has historically been significant. Some of this takes place in public research institutions such as DARPA, whilst much else is carried out by major defense contractors in expectation of being able to sell the results to the government (so is funded privately, but on the basis of implicit or explicit agreement of costs being recouped from the government).[citation needed]

According to the FY2015 presidential budget request:[3]

R&D is the collection of efforts directed toward gaining greater knowledge or understanding and applying knowledge toward the production of useful materials, devices, and methods. R&D investments can be characterized as basic research, applied research, development, R&D equipment, or R&D facilities. The Office of Management and Budget has used those or similar categories in its collection of R&D data since 1949....

Basic research is systematic study directed toward a fuller knowledge or understanding of the fundamental aspects of phenomena and of observable facts with out specific applications towards processes or products in mind. Basic research, however, may include activities with broad applications in mind.

Applied research is systematic study to gain knowledge or understanding necessary to determine the means by which a recognized and specific need may be met.

Development is systematic application of knowledge or understanding, directed toward the production of useful materials, devices, and systems or methods, including design, development, and improvement of prototypes and new processes to meet specific requirements.

Research and development equipment includes acquisition or design and production of movable equipment, such as spectrometers, research satellites, detectors, and other instruments. At a minimum, this category includes programs devoted to the purchase or construction of R&D equipment.

Research and development facilities include the acquisition, design, and construction of, or major repairs or alterations to, all physical facilities for use in R&D activities. Facilities include land, buildings, and fixed capital equipment, regardless of whether the facilities are to be used by the Government or by a private organization, and regardless of where title to the property may rest. This category includes such fixed facilities as reactors, wind tunnels, and particle accelerators.

The following chart shows a breakdown for the five agencies with the largest R&D budgets in the Obama administration's FY2015 proposal:[3]

  •   Basic research
  •   Applied research
  •   Development
  •   Equipment and facilities

Intellectual property policy[edit]

Inventions "conceived or actually reduced to practice" in the performance of government-funded research may be subject to the Bayh-Dole Act.

Science in political discourse[edit]

Most of the leading political issues in the United States have a scientific component. For example, renewable energy, Stem Cell Research, climate change, and national security. Despite the growing integration of science in policy there are only a handful of Congressional members and their staff who have sufficient background in science; therefore they refer to various congressional support agencies for analysis on science related issues. Important for thinking about science in political discourse is that congressional members weigh many factors when addressing an issue, not just the scientific merit of an issue.[1]


The first President's Science and Technology Advisor was James R. Killian, appointed in 1958 by President Eisenhower after Sputnik created the urgency for the government to support science and education. President Eisenhower realized then that if Americans were going to continue to be the world leader in scientific, technological and military advances, the government would need to provide support. After World War II, the US government began to formally provide support for scientific research and to establish the general structure by which science is conducted in the US.[5] The foundation for modern American science policy was laid way out in Vannevar Bush's Science - the Endless Frontier, submitted to President Truman in 1945. Vannevar Bush was President Roosevelt's science advisor and became one of the most influential science advisors as in his essay, he pioneered how we decide on science policy today.[6] He made recommendations to improve the following three areas: national security, health and the economy. The same three focuses we have today.

Creation of the NSF[edit]

The creation of the National Science Foundation, although in 1950, was a controversial issue that started as early as 1942, between engineer and science administrator Vannevar Bush and Senator Harley M. Kilgore (D-WV), who was interested in the organization of military research. Senator Kilgore presented a series of bills between 1942-1945 to Congress, the one that most resembles the establishment of the NSF, by name, was in 1944, outlining an independent agency whose main focus was to promote peacetime basic and applied research as well as scientific training and education. Some specifics outlined were that the director would be appointed and the board would be composed of scientists, technical experts and members of the public. The government would take ownership of intellectual property developed with federal funding and funding would be distributed based on geographical location, not merit. Although, both Bush and Kilgore were in favor of government support of science, they disagreed philosophically on the details of how that support would be carried out. In particular, Bush sided with the board being composed of just scientists with no public insight. When Congress signed the legislation that created the NSF, many of Bush's ideals were removed. It illustrates that these questions about patent rights, social science expectations, the distribution of federal funding (geographical or merit), and who (scientists or policymakers) get to be the administrators are interesting questions that science policy grapples with.

Future of science policy[edit]

Congress is realizing that the current national policy is not as concise and easy to determine priorities for funding scientific research.[vague] The goal is to be able to include government and all the institutions involved in research to be a part of the conversations concerning science, technology and engineering. As of right now, the criticism is that there is not a "science policy" but rather a "budget policy", stifling the ability for the nation to move forward in the field of science.[6] Congress is looking to the scientific community to participate and to submit their thoughts on the rising challenges for the community, nation and planet so to address these needs in scientific policy.[vague]

The Federal Research Public Access Act (111th congress S.1373, introduced 25 June 2009 but still in a Senate committee) would require "free online public access to such final peer-reviewed manuscripts or published versions as soon as practicable, but not later than 6 months after publication in peer-reviewed journals".[7][8][9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b White, Kasey; Carney, Joanne (2011). Working with Congress: A Scientist Guide to Policy. AAAS Office of Government Relations. pp. 20–23. 
  2. ^ "Frequently asked questions". The National Academies. Retrieved 29 April 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d "The 2014 Budget: A World-Leading Commitment to Science and Research". Office of Science and Technology Policy. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  4. ^ Koizumi, Kei. "Federal R&D in the FY 2009 Budget: An Introduction". AAAS. Retrieved 20 August 2010. 
  5. ^ Neal, Homer; Smith, Tobin; McCormick, Jennifer (2008). Beyond Sputnik. The University of Michigan Press. 
  6. ^ a b Ehlers, Vernon (16 January 1998). "The Future of U.S. Science Policy". Science 279 (5349): 302. doi:10.1126/science.279.5349.302a. 
  7. ^ Federal Research Public Access Act
  8. ^ Library of Congress, S.1273
  9. ^ US Scientific Grant Awards Database