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Ogmius Newsletter

Research Highlight

Research for Benefit in Federally Funded Mission Agencies by Nat Logar

The Research Highlight in this edition of Ogmius was written by Center graduate student Nat Logar.  Nat graduated from Brown University with a BS in Geology-Biology and is currently working toward his Ph.D. in Environmental Studies at CU-Boulder.  Following his undergraduate degree, he worked as a tour guide in Glacier National Park, an assistant on debris flow research for the U.S. Geological Survey in Golden, CO, and an environmental consultant in Boston.  Nat's undergraduate work, and his first year of graduate school, focused on carbon cycle science.  As he became exposed to policy research in graduate school, Nat's interests shifted from climate science to science policy.  In the past, he has performed research on the FDA approval process for transgenic fish and on climate science policy, as a part of an NSF-funded interdisciplinary group called Carbon, Climate, and Society.  Nat's current work, which is the subject of his Research Highlight, focuses on how federally funded institutions can fashion science policies that contribute to the benefit of targeted decision makers.  His dissertation will examine science policies in the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, the Naval Research Laboratories, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.  See Nat’s home page for more information.

Most of the funding that the U.S. government devotes to scientific research goes to mission agencies that are responsible for supporting a defined set of users.  Typically, there is an explicit or implicit common interest connection between the benefit of these users and the advancement of U.S. society at large.  For example, people in the U.S. value national security, so our government funds groups such as the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) to pursue research that will have potential military applications.  NRL maintains its reputation and funding by working to ensure that its work does result in user benefit.  By focusing on policy processes within NRL and other federally funded institutions, we can assess how different mechanisms contribute to, or detract from, the effective execution of agency missions.

NRL has a mission to support a “broadly based multidisciplinary program of scientific research and advanced technological development directed toward maritime applications.”  The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) works to “promote U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness.”  However, stating a goal of delivering results to decision makers does not guarantee those results. Irrelevance, wasted effort, and missed opportunities for beneficial outcomes can result from research that fails to account for the needs of information users. Critical consideration of the mechanisms through which institutions such as NIST and NRL pursue science can lead to transferable lessons for science policy makers.

Analysis of these science policies leads to increased understanding of how factors such as the definition of scientific problems, science decision-making structures, quality control mechanisms, distribution of participants, and social accountability guide the process of mission oriented science.  At the most general level, the key to effectively fostering a match between research, even at its most fundamental level, and outputs that decision makers find useful, is the existence of a “culture of application,” in which the consideration of a useful end product, and of the product’s user, is embedded in the way science is undertaken.

A culture of application may be fostered through various strategies.  For example, NIST project proposals are formally required to address a set of questions, called the Heilmeier questions, which consider context through delineation of the problem’s definition, the other alternatives in existence, the fit to mission, the potential impact of the research, and the criteria for success.  Assessing context and application also occurs informally, through frequent interactions between NIST scientists and relevant people from industry in workshops, collaborative relationships, and standards development organizations.

Military Deputies are one means through which NRL works to fit research to Navy needs.  The deputies are Naval officers who are billeted in lab divisions, and who are responsible for acting as liaisons between the scientists and Naval operations.  While the position is instituted formally, the way in which each deputy interacts with users and researchers is highly flexible and can allow for facilitation of effective reconciliation between supply and demand.

Although each strategy employed by NRL or NIST may not be fully transferable to other groups, useful aspects, such as formalized consideration of use combined with encouragement of other, informal means, may prove useful in the creation and alteration of institutional science policies.  Through consideration of where these institutions are and are not useful, we can bring transferable strategies to other groups concerned with making effective science policy.

Nat Logar