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Support for younger researchers and high-risk research is critical, says blue-ribbon panel

SPIE leadership underscores importance of needs

BELLINGHAM, WA, USA - 5 June 2008 - Programs and policies that support early-career investigators and high-risk, high-reward research are needed in order to preserve U.S. leadership in science and technology, contends a report released yesterday by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The report, ARISE: Advancing Research In Science and Engineering, documents a lack of financial support for potentially transformative science and technology research, and risk-averse thinking and policies that stifle important new research directions. The blue-ribbon committee that produced the report was chaired by Thomas Cech, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

"The ARISE report highlights a very key issue regarding fostering new research," said SPIE President Kevin Harding. "As Thomas Cech himself has pointed out, he received his Nobel Prize for work he did in his early 30s. Albert Einstein published his special theory of relativity when he was just 26 years old. It is the new ideas, now concepts that have led to the revolutionary advances in science, often done by people in the early years of their careers.

"SPIE is trying to do its part for early career professionals through our grant programs, special conference activities for early career professionals, and a new award in the area. But there needs to be much more done by both industry and government to grow new research. As the report points out, we may need to rethink how research monies are allocated to be sure we are not overlooking those new ideas essential to a healthy and competitive technology base by only funding the low risk efforts that provide the useful, but incremental, near term advances."


ARISE white paper committee chair Thomas Cech, Nobel laureate and Howard Hughes Medical Institute President, talked with SPIE President Kevin Harding of GE Global Research about science research funding last fall at a meeting of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents (CSSP) in Washington, DC.

As an example, the report notes that the average age for first-time recipients of primary research grants from the National Institutes of Health is 42.4 and rising, and that the success rate for first-time grant applicants has declined from 86 percent in 1980 to 28 percent in 2007.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Cech drew a direct connection between federal research funding reductions and the rising age of grant recipients. Younger scientists starting their own laboratories are competing for research money with more senior scientists with established labs and a history of productivity. The younger researchers are relegated to spending time seeking grants rather than participating in what could be a very creative career phase, he said.

While current funding is a result of existing administration policies, "there is totally inadequate attention being paid to the problem in the current presidential election cycle," said Eugene Arthurs, CEO of SPIE. "It's just like Nero fiddling while Rome burns."

Read more about the report at http://www.amacad.org/news/newArise.aspx.