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Making the Most of Competition in Federal R&D

Reflections from the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes

SOURCE: AP Photo/Greg Baker

It is intuitive that individuals are pushed to achieve their best when in competition. We revel in seeing athletes strive to set new records before our eyes during each Olympic games. And it is no surprise that many of the greatest records are set and broken at the very pinnacle of the competition—the finals. With this understanding of the ability and near regularity with which we can achieve greatness through competition, the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes asks, “Is competition between and within government R&D agencies a force for innovation and for achieving desired outcomes? Or does competition lead to waste, duplication, and unproductive rivalry?”

This question was unraveled recently at a CSPO seminar with Dr. Gregg Zachary—a longtime business reporter for the Wall Street Journal and author of Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century—and Dr. Sybil Francis, executive director of the Center for the Future of Arizona and a former aide in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. CSPO—a collaborative intellectual network emanating out of Arizona State University—“creates knowledge and methods, cultivates public discourse, and fosters policies to help decision makers and institutions grapple with the immense power and importance of science and technology as society charts a course for the future.” With this goal and in that spirit, Dr. Francis and Dr. Zachary launched the discussion using the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project as points of departure.

Within the context of the history of competition between different governmental agencies involved with these two monumental projects, the discussion centered on not just if competition can create results but also how to harness the power of competition. Examples were invoked, including the historical competition between Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory for governmental nuclear contracts in the 1950s; between the National Institutes of Health, or NIH, and the Department of Energy in phase I of the Human Genome Project; and between NIH and Celera for phase II of the Human Genome Project. The goal was to tease out the organizational structures that facilitated efficiency and success. As Dr. Zachary stated, “The stakes are high with $150 billion of total [federal] R&D invested per year. Improving productivity of these funds could have a huge impact.” Making the most of scarce resources is critical in a time of emphasis on belt-tightening in Washington and as we pursue technological solutions to so many of society’s problems. How do we go about allocating these critical investments and maximizing the outcomes?

To answer this question, Dr. Zachary and Dr. Francis laid out several tools and characteristics that encourage productive outcomes from competitive research.

First, research must have a clearly specified problem to solve. Consider the difference between research directed to “understand the science of weight gain” versus research aimed at “reducing the prevalence of obesity in society.” A clear mission is important.

Next, the outcome identified needs to be important to the customer—in this case the government or the public. When a research objective is perceived as high-profile or sexy, research teams naturally compete to be involved. This was highlighted by the Human Genome Project, where the excitement surrounding the race to be chosen drove progress in both public- and private-sector research and led to vast and positive societal outcomes, which have been extensively documented.

Another important characteristic for competitive research is a sense of urgency as exemplified by the 1960s race to the moon, the 1940s race for the atomic bomb, or the later stages of the Human Genome Project as private research companies began to enter the fray. Not only must the outcome be perceived as important, but it must also be time-constrained. In the case of energy innovation, the threat of runaway climate change provides an important motivator for many in the clean tech research community.

Consequences for failing to meet identified needs and deadlines, and prizes for the winners are important as well. There must be clear winners and losers. However, Dr. Francis stipulated that the loss doesn’t necessarily have to be economic in nature—losing stature or prestige can be equally powerful. In the case of Lawrence Livermore Lab’s competition with Los Alamos Lab for nuclear weapons contracts in the 1950s, Dr. Francis noted that the potential loss of prestige proved a powerful motivator of competition and innovation in the development of new weapons delivery systems for the atomic bomb.

But at the same time that there are winners and losers, research programs must be careful to ensure that lessons learned by the losers do not go to waste but rather stay within the research ecosystem. Indeed, both panelists at the CSPO event agreed that the knowledge gained by losers in a competitive research environment can still have tremendous economic, scientific, or institutional value. “The loser cannot cease, they still provide value in loss,” Dr. Zachary argued.

The panelists concluded by suggesting an iterative approach to funding research competitions. Under this approach, rather than competing for a single all-or-nothing contract or prize, competing research teams have multiround competitions where the level of funding or the size of the prize rises in proportion to the risk. In this way the “losers” bow out early on, while investment is low. The remaining competitors are then exposed to more risk in relation to the escalating investments. Failure is a loss of contract and a knock to future prestige or credibility. By allowing competitors to scale their efforts gradually as chances of success are assessed, this approach also allows the losers to remain viable after their loss while encouraging all parties to compete and take measured risks.

Is the pursuit of scientific and technological breakthroughs analogous to Olympic competition? It seems that competition can sometimes lead to productivity and efficiency, especially when the competitive regime is designed to take advantage of the lessons learned by losers as well as winners. As policymakers continue to reconcile tight federal budgets with the need to invest in the innovation that fuels long-term economic growth, let’s hope they move forward with an awareness of how best to use competition as a tool for making the most of every federal research dollar.

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