A new report from the U.S. National Academies warns that the country's top ranking in information technology research and development "is now under pressure" and could disappear within a generation. To prevent any slippage, the report says, the federal government should reform the patent system to make litigation less common, ease financial regulations that may impose special burdens on start-up companies, and fund research programs aimed at some of the field’s biggest challenges.
Randy Katz, a computer scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, who co-chaired the panel that wrote the report, says the country should “embrace” the globalization of R&D but also “take it as a challenge: How do you keep the U.S. a good place for innovation?” Katz suggests that one good place to start would be a 2002 law that imposed greater financial reporting requirements on public companies. The law, meant to increase accountability, has had the unintended effect of making it hard for many small companies to go public because of the additional cost of meeting the law's strict requirements on disclosure. Congress should consider reducing the law’s burden on small start-ups, he says.
The government should also step into the yawning gap between purely academic research and industrial R&D, says Katz. He cites the High-Performance Computing and Communications initiative of the 1980s and '90s as a successful example of what he calls "programmatic research [that can] build communities of researchers that collaborate and also compete while pursuing a particular goal.” The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) no longer funds such research, notes another panelist, economist Steven Klepper of Carnegie Mellon University in Pitsburgh, Pennsylvania.
What are the chances that the report, requested by the National Science Foundation, will shape the policies of the new Administration? Klepper says that NSF “doesn’t have the power to implement almost anything we’re recommending.” But officials from President Barack Obama’s transition team were given copies of the report, and it echoes the reasoning behind several of Obama's initiatives, such as increasing the scope of broadband Internet access and funding an Advanced Research Projects Agency within the Department of Energy.