URBANA — Among the challenges facing the U.S. "innovation ecosystem" are the ability to continually attract talented students and researchers and the lack of multiyear budget planning for federal funding agencies, like the National Science Foundation, said a former director of the agency Wednesday.
Science and engineering research is an "inherently long-term" investment, necessitating the need for not just an annual budget planning process, but planning five years out, said Subra Suresh, who was director of the National Science Foundation from 2010 to 2013.
Suresh visited the University of Illinois campus for two days this week to talk about the "research university in the new era of global science and engineering." This summer he stepped down from the NSF post to become president of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.
Suresh, an engineer who has 21 registered patents, addressed students and faculty at the Alice Campbell Alumni Center on Wednesday and delivered a Center for Advanced Studies Miller/Comm lecture Tuesday on "Crossing Boundaries and Transforming Lives: Engineering, Cell Biology and Medicine."
The Wednesday talk was part of Chancellor Phyllis Wise's series examining "the research university in the world of the future." Such discussions in the U.S., she said, "are increasingly, intensively focused on what's being called the 'innovation' deficit that is facing our nation. Eroding federal investments and certainly state investments in higher education has put us on a precipice that we really want to back away from because it is threatening the future of the United States," Wise said.
Subresh outlined what he believes are the main ingredients of a country's "successful innovation ecosystem."
The first ingredient is having models for science funding. It is not a coincidence, he said, that other countries have modeled their funding agencies after the National Science Foundation. NSF does not conduct internal research or push any particular mission, he said. Another ingredient is a focus on science during national and economic crises.
Even during times of crisis, he said, the country managed to approve measures that would advance science and innovation. For example, during the Civil War, Congress passed and President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which created the land-grant system of colleges and universities. A year later they created the National Academy of Sciences.
Also key to a country's innovation ecosystem is having open, transparent, merit-based processes for awarding research grants. Decisions on what to fund are not made by leaders of NSF but primarily from the input of experts in various fields, Suresh said. There's also a need to maintain a balance between funding big projects and big facilities with individuals who may be simply sitting by themselves in windowless rooms.
"Innovation comes in many different flavors. The goal of NSF is to foster innovation as much as possible while dancing to the tunes of Congress and policymakers," he said.
It may seem as if a good idea may not have any application today, but one day it may lead to the creation of a company, creating jobs and changing the economy, he said, sharing as one example, early NSF grants on the PageRank method used in website searching.
Also key to a country's "innovation ecosystem" is having industrial, economic, and societal impact by translating the funded research to the marketplace. Here he spoke about the NSF's Innovation Corps, or I-CORPS, a private-public program that supports entrepreneurship in scientists.
Since 1951, 201 Nobel Prize laureates received funding from the National Science Foundation, he said. And 70 percent of all U.S. laureates since 1951 have received NSF funding.
"I challenge Congress to tell me any other $7 billion appropriation ... that has had this return on investment," he said, later adding that to put things into perspective, last year in the U.S. people spent $7 billion on potato chips and $4.3 billion on Halloween candy.
Suresh has a bachelor's of technology degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, a master's degree from Iowa State University and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A former professor at Brown University and MIT, he also served as MIT's dean of its School of Engineering.