A perennial question about our Nation’s approach to science is: “Why don’t we have a single agency with responsibility for all Federally supported scientific research?” It’s a good question. Wouldn’t designating a single Federal agency with this responsibility be easier? Wouldn’t it eliminate issues with coordination, communication, and even duplication of scientific research? Plenty of countries have a distinct “Ministry of Science”, so why doesn’t the United States give science a Cabinet-level department of its own?
The answer, in a nutshell, is that science is pervasive. Science is a fundamental part of areas as diverse as health, energy, the environment, national security, the economy, and many more. And so it’s difficult to put all of science in one place. While there are benefits to centralizing scientific oversight, there are also considerable advantages to integrating science throughout the Federal government, as is the case in the United States. Ensuring that support for scientific investigation and exploration is built into all Federal agencies with responsibility for these areas enhances our national understanding and enables the Federal government to be more versatile and better informed in identifying challenges and advancing potential solutions.
Diversity in science is often considered in terms of the people involved, recognizing that inclusion of a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives is critical to achieving robust intellectual dialogue. That type of diversity is an important asset, and enhances the Nation’s research and development enterprise. But also important, and generally less discussed, is the value of having diverse approaches to supporting science via a wide range of Federal departments and agencies.
Maintaining science and technology (S&T) as distributed enterprises in the United States allows researchers to tailor their approaches to particular missions and objectives, and also allows the Federal government to support a diversity of approaches to areas that are of interest to multiple agencies. The number and variety of Federal departments and agencies that are closely engaged in S&T are greater than is often realized. These range from departments and agencies that readily come to mind when thinking of science, such as the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Energy, to departments and agencies that people often don’t think of as having a research component, such as the U.S. Forest Service, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Highway Administration, and the Smithsonian Institution. Major Federal research and development initiatives frequently tap into ten or more of these agencies; examples include the recently established National Strategic Computing Initiative as well as long-standing activities such as the Global Change Research Program and the National Nanotechnology Initiative.
There are certainly opportunities to improve efficiency and streamline similar processes across agencies, and these should be—and are!—pursued aggressively when they improve outcomes for, lessen burdens on, or reduce costs to the scientific community or the government. There is, however, no one “best” way to do science, and there is no one “best” way to review, manage, and fund science either. Different Federal agencies have different missions and interact with different scientific and technical communities, and so will find different approaches most effective. Hence it is a strength, not a weakness, that the agencies have different methods, criteria, and mechanisms for funding and carrying out scientific research. Occasional calls for all Federal agencies to adopt a single set of “best” practices in how they manage their portfolios miss the point…the diversity of approaches is, in fact, a best practice.
For other thoughts on basic research, and the tools, facilities, ideas, and processes that enable and enrich it, see these earlier OSTP blog posts:
To join the conversation on today’s topic or any of these prior posts, please tag your comments or responses with #BasicResearch.
Altaf H. (Tof) Carim is Assistant Director for Research Infrastructure at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.