Press Release

AIP FYI: House Subcommittee Considers International Science Benchmarking

By SpaceRef Editor
October 13, 2000
Filed under


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

Number 125: October 13, 2000

How much money is enough for U.S. science, and how should
policymakers determine what level of investment is appropriate
for each field? Even as Congress searches for an exit strategy
to finish its work for the year and head home to campaign, the
House Science Subcommittee on Basic Research considered ways to
address these perennial questions at an October 4 hearing on
international benchmarking of science.

A committee of the National Academies earlier this year completed
a study exploring the feasibility of using international
benchmarking – assessing the country’s relative strength in a
given research field versus other countries – as an input to such
policy decisions. The Committee on Science, Engineering, and
Public Policy (COSEPUP) set up groups of experts to evaluate the
U.S. position in three fields: mathematics, immunology, and
materials science and engineering. This study, published in
March, was prompted by a previous (1993) COSEPUP report that
recommended research investment decisions be made on the basis of
keeping the U.S. “among the world leaders in all major areas of
science,” so it is positioned to take rapid advantage of
breakthroughs wherever they occur, and selecting certain
strategic fields in which the U.S. should be the clear world

Easily-gathered quantitative data, such as number of citations,
publications, researchers and graduate students supported, and
level of funding, is not adequate to determine the nation’s
position relative to other countries, testified Mary Anne Fox,
chair of the COSEPUP panel that organized the benchmarking
studies. Comparable data is often not available for other
countries, and quantitative indicators alone do not give an
accurate picture of the health of a field, she said; subjective
analysis by knowledgeable experts is also needed. Using
committees of such experts, the COSEPUP panel concluded that
performing benchmarking is a “rapid and inexpensive” way of
assessing the relative U.S. position in a field. The case
studies showed the nation to be among the world leaders in all
three selected fields, reported COSEPUP member Robert White of
Carnegie Mellon. The studies, however, also identified some
areas of potential concern: leadership in math is dependent on
foreign researchers who came to the U.S. because of World War II
and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In immunology, the U.S.’s
managed care systems make it difficult to attract patients needed
to conduct clinical trials. In the field of materials, many U.S.
facilities are 20-30 years older than comparable facilities in
Europe and Japan.

While commending COSEPUP’s efforts, National Science Board (NSB)
Chairman Eamon Kelly remarked that “international benchmarking,
while an important component…is not sufficient by itself to
tell us how much the government should invest in a given field.”
In addition to international position, he said, policymakers
should take into account the potential public benefits, the
health of the infrastructure, the opportunities for rapid
advancement, and the government’s need to perform specific
missions, in determining how much money a discipline should
receive. He added that the NSB is currently conducting a study
to examine just such factors and how they can aid the decision-
making process.

Even though this was the subcommittee’s last hearing of the 106th
Congress, Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI), Ranking Minority Member
Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman
Connie Morella (R-MD) and others on the subcommittee clearly
share an abiding concern over how best to make decisions
affecting the federal research portfolio. Smith indicated an
interest in possibly having COSEPUP perform benchmarking studies
for the government on a permanent basis. As he thanked Johnson
for her service on the subcommittee, and she said she looked
forward to returning next year, Smith added a joking reference to
the upcoming elections: “We’ll see who is chair four months from

The March 2000 COSEPUP study, “Experiments in International
Benchmarking of U.S. Research Fields,” runs 316 pages and is
available for viewing or ordering online at

Audrey T. Leath

Public Information Division

The American Institute of Physics

(301) 209-3094

SpaceRef staff editor.