The US Research Landscape

By Stephen Elsby, Director of RCUK US

Three years in, and I’m just about comfortable with the idea of sharing my perceptions of the US research funding landscape. That said, you never stop learning, so I present below a few thoughts with a hope that it will start a dialogue.

The USA (both public and private sector) is still the largest investor in research and innovation in the world. Ten years ago this was quoted as about 40% of world spend, however this figure has been steadily falling largely due to increasing spend elsewhere. Regardless of spend relative to the rest of the world (and it’s telling that this is still the kind of metric used) the US maintains world leading universities, researchers and facilities through an extensive network of federal funders, state funders, industry, foundations and university endowments. Because of this quality and the size of potential collaborative opportunity, the US remains a clear priority for UK researchers and the Research Councils.

The first really big UK versus US difference to consider is the yearly budget appropriations process. Whilst this might be considered a planning challenge in itself, impasses between the Senate and the House of Representatives have led to continuing resolutions (a rollover of previous yearly funding allocation with a reduction in flexibility to start new activities), sequestration (automatic cuts in previous funding levels) and even the shutdown of federal government. Being British, my natural recourse is to articulate my views on this through a major understatement. The UK system (Haldane and all) seems somewhat more nurturing. However, be it through the sheer size of research spend, the role of non-governmental funders (foundations, industry, endowments), talented researchers, indomitable research funders or any combination of these and other factors; it works. Indeed not only does it work, but we can and do work very well with the US.

Federal investment in research enjoys broad cross-party support with some notable exceptions (e.g. global warming). Favorable budget settlements in the UK and the US demonstrate the importance both our countries place in basic research as a driver for prosperity. However, the dialogue in the US around the importance of research investments does seem to be more public and politicised. In really crude terms the sums involved and the role the agencies play in the innovation chain mean that this Federal funding is directly linked to State level prosperity and this is naturally political. Congress in particular has an active role in managing the federal research budgets (often with an opinion on the validity of individual line item requests). Mission agencies (e.g. DoE, DoD) are particularly well scrutinized, whilst the more fundamental funders (e.g. NSF) tend to have more flexibility in funding. This interplay between the federal system and individual states is part of what knits the US together. It means that, to a varying degree, Federal research spend often not only has to demonstrate delivery against research priorities but also against a wider range of political objectives.

Compared to the UK, the US has a huge number of research funders. Almost every federal agency has money set aside for research and each has to justify the uniqueness of their research activity. This can make it difficult for US agencies to work together, although bodies such as the President’s Office for Science and Technology Policy work to ensure dialogue and the alignment of activities. The more mission led funders (e.g. DoE) tend to cover more of the innovation chain than the Research Councils, which makes it important to consider partnership with other UK stakeholders when approaching these agencies. Whilst there are some obvious partners, from a Research Council point of view, there are yet to be explored wider opportunities to develop partnerships across this complex landscape.

Finally, the size of US funding and its national excellence does seem to have led to less focus on international collaboration, though the growth of other countries investments have started to challenge this. UK research excellence, cultural similarities and historical linkages mean that there is already a great deal of researcher led UK/US research collaboration. A “special relationship” does certainly exist but this has and continues to be hard earned through the demonstrable extra impact afforded by collaboration.

A lot of words, and I’ve already had to limit the topics covered. I have made some generalisations that others might not think helpful so would really appreciate comments.