Sponsored Research in the 21st Century

Left to their own devices, most scientists will work on what interests them and follow their intuition as to the best way to develop new knowledge and/or solve pressing problems.  Historically, this type of curiosity-driven research has been self-funded (e.g., Charles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle) or supported by personally wealthy and powerful, forward-thinking, benefactors (e.g., Jonas Salk’s first research laboratory was funded by the Mellon family).

Over the years, self-funding and private support for curiosity-driven or basic research in science has been replaced by government agencies and private foundations.   Other scientists and engineers have accepted commissions where the provider of funds (usually a government agency or private company) has a greater say in the purpose and path of the researcher’s work, expressed in a contract or analogous agreement – that is, contract research.

There have been heated arguments among scientists and engineers, politicians and philosophers over the value to society and intellectual progress derived from following these two research support models.  History shows, however, that great things have been accomplished under both models.

The 1945 report, Science – The Endless Frontier, by Vannevar Bush helped justify and support the establishment of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950.  Over the years, the NSF has provided great impetus to the emergence of the term sponsored research that expressed a neutral zone where true believers on both sides of this debate meet and agree to move forward.  The word sponsored acknowledges the role and influence of a sponsor without implying that the provider of funds is calling all the shots.

In its earliest days, NSF was the mecca for curiosity-driven researchers, and firmly committed to the basic research end of what we recognize now as a spectrum of research stretching through problem-oriented fundamental research to mission-oriented and industrial application research.  While it is difficult to identify a point in time when the neutral zone of sponsored research was truly established, some would identify the early 1970s when Guyford Stever, director of the NSF from 1972 to 1976, helped NSF to cross into the realm of gently directing research with the establishment of RANN (Research Applied to National Needs), a grand experiment in applied and problem-oriented research.

At that time, I was at the NSF on assignment from the Department of State, where I was a Foreign Service officer.  I assisted in the launch and execution of an interdisciplinary program that was a predecessor of RANN, which might best be described as a bone in the throat of NSF’s culture of basic and curiosity-driven research.  The program was relatively short-lived but tremendously influential, pioneering dedicated renewable energy research activities that continue at the Department of Energy and leading directly to the establishment at NSF of an Engineering Directorate, a new emphasis there on engineering R&D. 

Over the years the neutral zone of sponsored research has broadened and, with experience, become an important tool for governments and companies that want to develop and tap scientific and engineering talent in service of civic, military, and commercial missions.   In the United States, sponsored research is a well understood dance between university researchers and federal funding sources, notably NSF, NIH, DARPA, a long list of other funding agencies, and many co-investing companies.  The concept and tools of sponsored research have also shaped the world's approach to R&D in a variety of ways.

In the late 1970s at Division of International Programs (INT) of NSF we were working on activities and programs designed to directly facilitate international S&T collaboration.  In these programs, sponsored research was the preferred mechanism by which two national governments could bring researchers together on a mutually advantageous scientific and technical issue.  From a U.S. national perspective, the relationships built between scientific communities, even when the partners were in unfriendly countries, also built important bridges and contributed directly to U.S. national security. 

In the early 1990s, as the collapse of the of the Soviet Union accelerated, I was detailed to the Department of State to assist U.S. efforts on the establishment of the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) in Moscow, and the Science and Technology Center Ukraine (STCU) in Kiev.  These multilateral organizations were dedicated to redirecting to civilian work (instead of weapons research) the scientists and engineers of the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union.

At the same time, a national analog to be created by NSF was proposed by Congressman George Brown of California.   A major objective of Congressman Brown’s proposal was the redirection of scientists from military to civilian activities in the former Soviet Union (FSU), along with establishing new and useful links between the U.S. R&D community and their former Soviet national counterparts.  I was asked to help make that a reality, a task that required getting the Department of Defense and other federal agencies to provide startup funding.  In the end the effort required the U.S. Department of State, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, Vice President Al Gore, and the financier George Soros to get the job done.

The new public/private organization, The U.S. Civilian Research and Development Foundation (CRDF), was announced at the Moscow summit of 1995 and established by NSF as a private, non-profit organization.  I joined and stayed with CRDF (now CRDF Global) for 13 years.

CRDF led the way in working to incorporate values of merit and peer review in making decisions for the allocation of R&D resources in countries where the process was unknown.  Key to the CRDF’s success was the use of sponsored research as the mechanism for both building cooperative links and for demonstrating the utility and effectiveness of merit-based decision-making for selecting projects to receive support.  

After I left CRDF in 2007, I worked with the Washington Advisory Group in its efforts to assist the establishment of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) as an international graduate university with aspirations to world-class excellence, an international faculty and student body consisting of both men and women, and a mission that included providing significant benefits to Saudi Arabia’s economic development.

A critical aspect of KAUST’s aspirations and plans were links to the best research institutions around the world working in the fields that KAUST hoped to make its core research areas.  To find and engage the right partners in the world, KAUST became a sponsor of research before it was even a functioning university.  Its capacity to engage partners and administer sponsored research awards was not only unique, but effective, providing it with ongoing partnerships with a global who’s-who of outstanding institutions by the time its doors opened to the first students.

Intelligently mobilized and deployed, sponsored research can help researchers in countries at the pinnacle of scientific and engineering work productively with counterparts in countries still aspiring to such excellence.  Collaboratively they can address problems that affect the entire world, and that cannot be properly addressed by the developed world alone.  Peer-reviewed sponsored research programs can show, by example, how administrative procedures for project selection and management can conserve precious R&D resources and, critically, how to allocate funds on the basis of merit and potential for accomplishment.

Properly structured sponsored collaborative research projects can give incentive and opportunity to research communities with few national resources available to them for research.  From food security to emerging infectious diseases to transportation, the environment and global warming, clues for how to proceed to understand and address their challenges can be elicited from scientific and engineering groups around the world, working together in sponsored research projects supported by governments and private foundations.

Charles "Tom" Owens at The New Advisory Group