Forget the Shovel — STAR METRICS Tracks Recovery Act’s ‘Lab-coat-ready’ Projects

6 mins read

Photo: Andrey Kiselev

When President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law shortly into his presidency two years ago, the administration and the media touted the “shovel-ready” projects the stimulus act would help to create?

But, what about the lab-coat-ready projects?

Along with the expansion of unemployment benefits and increased spending on healthcare and infrastructure the ARRA also included billions of dollars for research and development — from large grants to the National Science Foundation and NASA to millions in funding for research into energy efficiency.

And, even as stimulus funding began rolling in and infusing the market, industries and research institutions with cash, the White House promised unprecedented transparency in terms of tracking the Recovery Act’s dollars.

But, research and development poses its own reporting challenges. With shovel-ready projects, such as infrastructure improvement, it’s relatively easy to know if recovery cash is being used wisely: Are the roads being built and are workers holding the shovels?

The challenge became how to effectively measure the impact of the federal government’s investments in science and technology.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy found the answer in the stars. Well, not so much the stars as in STAR METRICS.

The somewhat ungainly “Science and Technology in America’s Reinvestment – Measuring the Effect of Research on Innovation, Competitiveness and Science” — summed up in the much pithier STAR METRICS — is a federally funded partnership between the government and university researchers.

Anchored from the White House’s science and technology shop, the project, which is also led by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, aims to make sure the federal government and the taxpayers are getting a return on investment on science and technology investment.

In other words, is all this work being done in fluorescent-lit university laboratories going to lead to actual job creation in the “real world”?

“It is essential to document with solid evidence the returns our nation is obtaining from its investment in research and development,” said OSTP Head John Holdren. “STAR METRICS is an important element of doing just that.”

But, beyond that, it’s also an important step in measuring the progress of investments in science and technology to ensure that advancements in the science labs of the ivory tower are being put to use.

Both of these goals couldn’t be more important as the STAR METRICS programs ramps up into its second phase. The first phase, initiated when the bill was first signed, meant developing uniform and standardized measures of the impact of ARRA science funding on job creation.

The second phase promises to be more in depth, measuring new patents, firm startups, new publications of scientific work, and improvements in health and environment from research and employment.

For the government researchers leading the initiative, it’s about turning the scientific method around on themselves.

“STAR METRICS will yield a rigorous, transparent review of how our science investments are performing,” said NIH Director Dr.  Francis S. Collins. “In the short term, we’ll know the impact on jobs. In the long term, we’ll be able to measure patents, publications, citations and business start-ups.”

The Federal Demonstration Partnership, a collaboration between federal agencies and research institutions says the program could revolutionize “the way we think about science investments and science impacts,” and also makes the federal government operate in a more open and transparent manner,  two goals of the administration’s open government aims.

So, why should you care?

It’s clear, the program is now more important than ever. Even before the budget wrangling over how much research and development to add to the federal rolls began, the White House was thinking R&D.

During an economic speech in September, the president proposed $100 billion to expand and make permanent the research tax credit for corporate research shops.

In his State of the Union address a few weeks ago, Obama renewed the call for infrastructure and research spending to “win the future,” as the United States faces what he called a “Sputnik moment.”

Increased funding for corporate and university research and development along with a system, such as  STAR METRICS that ensures such investments are making an impact and are worth it are clearly just one step in making the next big breakthrough. But, scientists, researchers and business development experts alike know the value of taking that first step.

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