Investments in science create new knowledge that is freely traded around the world, but it’s the application of that knowledge (e.g., engineering) that creates wealth through new products and processes. U.S. federal R&D dollars for basic science generate knowledge that is essentially a non-rival, non-appropriable public good that can be quickly picked up and leveraged by foreign competitors, explaining why many nations invest much less in basic research and more in applied. Unfortunately, the United States invests significantly more in scientific research than it does in engineering. Of the total federal research investments in science and engineering in 2008, approximately 1/7th was allocated to engineering development and 6/7th to the various scientific fields.
It’s time to raise the profile of engineering within our national innovation system. While NSF supports phenomenal work, its central purpose is belied by its title. NSF’s primary mission is funding scientific research, its engineering support programs get shorter shrift. Therefore, Congress should create a National Engineering and Innovation Foundation as a separate entity operating alongside the National Science Foundation. The new National Engineering and Innovation Foundation would consolidate the current Engineering Directorate within NSF including the ERC and I/UCRC programs, the functional parts of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Department of Defense’s Manufacturing Technology (ManTech) program, and the Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing office into a single entity with an engineering focus.