Why it’s essential to invest in basic research during hard times

Posted by Rick Rashid
Senior Vice President, Microsoft Research 

 

Several of my colleagues and I are in Washington, D.C., today to give policymakers a glimpse of some of the exciting projects we’re working on at Microsoft Research.  Some of the technologies we’re demonstrating may have a real-world application today, while others will have an application two, three or even 10 years from now. 

Regardless of when the commercial payoff comes, we believe it is critical for not only companies like Microsoft but also the federal government to continue investing in basic research even as the economy struggles.

Many people across industry, and even some in academia, misunderstand the reasons for investing in long-term basic research.  Too often people equate basic research with its outcomes, especially the new technologies and products it creates.  They then try to manage basic research like they would product development or a business, often with disastrous consequences.

To my mind, the reason for investing in basic research is to increase your chances of survival during periods of intense change. New ideas, technologies and products are the happy by-products of research in good times. In bad times, having a significant basic research asset allows a company or society to rapidly adapt, compete and change.

Government has a key role to play in advancing the boundaries of science and technology.  If you look back to the writings of American scientist Vannevar Bush, as he described what would eventually become the National Science Foundation and the U.S. federal research infrastructure, Bush said, “You invest in basic research and long-term research precisely because you don’t know what the future will hold. You don’t know whether there will be a war, a disease outbreak, a famine, a new competitor, or an economic dislocation of some kind.”

(L to R) Fang Yu of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley talks during the D.C. Roadshow about her work to detect botnet spam attacks with Roy Levin, managing director of Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, and Fred Humphries, managing director of U.S. Government Affairs.Bush believed the government should invest in basic research to build a treasure chest of ideas, technologies and smart people that could be called upon in difficult times. And history shows that the investments the U.S. government made in research in the middle of the 20th century led to a period of unprecedented innovation and prosperity.

However, over the last 10-15 years there has been a retreat from the successful government research investment strategies of the past – strategies that created modern computing and the Internet. Increasing the use of non-competitive, short-term mission-focused investment, while also insufficiently funding long-term and more risky research, threatens America’s economic future and position in the world.

The federal government needs to restore a balanced system of support for long-term basic research in science and technology with a goal of ensuring the future competitiveness of the U.S. Specifically, I would like to see the new administration work more closely with Congress to restore the “long-term risk-taking” parts of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to their 1970s/1980s form, and fund the American Competitiveness Act.

Government cannot tackle the innovation challenge alone.  The private sector also has to help shoulder the burden. Microsoft has a long history of investing substantially in basic research for the same reason Vannevar Bush advocated that government do so a half century ago:  We don’t know what the future holds, and we want a reservoir of ideas and talented people to allow us to respond to change. 

(L to R) Y.C. Ju and Mike Seltzer of Microsoft Research Redmond discusses Commute UX, a voice-activated car infotainment system, with Rick Rashid, senior vice president of Microsoft Research, June 24 during the D.C. Roadshow.I came to Microsoft nearly 18 years ago when Bill Gates asked me to create Microsoft Research. For those 18 years, our number one mission has been to advance the state of the art in the field of computer science, across dozens of disciplines. We’ve steadily increased our investment in basic research, and today we have more than 850 PhD. researchers working in six labs. Our goal is to advance the frontiers of computer science, not just Microsoft’s interests. Our investment in basic research creates value not just for a company like Microsoft, but for society at large. Such investment allows companies, countries and whole societies to respond rapidly to change. It’s this agility that is essential.

The U.S. economy is still the world leader in innovation. Our universities remain the envy of the world. The American workforce is the best on the planet, and U.S. companies continue to drive technological progress in almost every industry.

But we cannot become complacent if the competitiveness and economic prosperity of the U.S. are to continue to thrive.  So, my call to action for all segments of the U.S. economy is: “Invest in basic research.”

 

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