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Engineering Evolving
September 1, 1997 Volume 27 Issue 3
The Bridge, Volume 27, Number 3 - Fall 1997

The Evolving Role of Government in Science and Technology

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Author: Peter Blair

The nature of government involvement in the nation's S&T enterprise is changing dramatically, and the effectiveness of that role will depend increasingly on a well-informed electorate.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Josef Joffe (1997) offers some very interesting observations about the uniqueness of the American innovation engine. His opening line is, "Something funny happened on the way down from the Cold War." The article recaps the bipolar world of that period and the perceptions on the part of many of the big-brother imperialism of the United States.

In the article, Joffe confronts a number of authors, the so-called declinists, who argue that the post-Cold War United States is like Hapsburg Spain of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: arrogant, overreaching, oblivious to the fact that their military ambitions were outpacing economic resources. In debunking the declinists view, Joffe recounts that Philip II of Spain and Louis XIV of France devoted 75 percent of their nations' spending to the military, while Washington devotes less than 30 percent - still too much, but nothing like the Hapsburgs.

The key insight, however, is that Hapsburg Spain was strong as long as it was rich. The primary source of wealth was gold and silver from Latin America. When that dried up, Hapsburg's muscle shriveled. Joffe argues that America's wealth in the post-Cold War world is very different; it comes not from silver mines but from production and, above all, from relentless adaptation and innovation. Joffe captures the U.S. approach this way: "If steel falters, let's do microchips; if the Japanese grab the camera market, Hollywood will flood the world with movies. Unlike the Hapsburgs, America's riches aren't dug from the ground, they roll out of labs, research outfits and universities. And that is an inexhaustible resource." One could certainly quibble with the point about excavating riches, since the United States is genuinely blessed with abundance of natural resources, but the conclusion still stands: To remain strong, the United States cannot lose the powerful advantage provided by its innovation engine. (See Rosenberg and Birdsell, 1986.)

The American appreciation for innovation "and the supporting scaffolding of science and technology" is deeply embedded in our history. Among the nation's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most outspoken concerning the role of science and technology in producing social change and economic growth. Some of his thinking, particularly relevant to this paper, is engraved at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. He said, "As new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must also advance to keep pace with the times."

Indeed, Jefferson was one of the nation's first technologists, as is so evident when one visits Monticello, and he was intensely interested and concerned about the impact of changing technology on emerging American society, economy, and culture. He foresaw the role, although perhaps not the scale or breadth, of the nation's science and technology enterprise as it would emerge over the next century.

The massive research, development, and engineering infrastructure that has evolved over the last century, and particularly the role of government in that system, is undergoing fundamental change in response to a variety of forces. These forces, well articulated in numerous recent books and articles, include most significantly the increased pace of knowledge creation and diffusion; the globalization and integration of economies around the world; the changing structure of the U.S. economy, especially the growth of the service, information, and high-tech sectors; and shifting public and private R&D investment strategies, largely the consequence of the end of the Cold War.

Given these forces of change, how do we respond to Mr. Jefferson's admonition to design governmental institutions to accommodate changes in technology in this now much more complex world?

Perhaps the most important issue to address, Mr. Jefferson might well have argued, is that an uniformed electorate invites an unquestioned ideological agenda and can lead to abuse. This, in fact, was one of his own biggest fears about our fledgling democracy. And science and technology, because they are often so complex, are particularly prone to such abuse. Yet, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for anyone, or even any institution, to keep pace with the frontier of knowledge.

A Role for the Academies
The U.S. Constitution acts as a governor against overly hasty attempts at change, but nothing can correct for an uniformed electorate if we want to continue operating in a democracy. The problem of helping inform our elected officials and the electorate and of better organizing the interdisciplinary knowledge base to help society is, incidentally, a place where the National Academies and organizations like my own, Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, can and must contribute.

Government will continue to do and sponsor a great deal of research. The recent trend toward tightening spending at all levels of government, however, is affecting the kinds of decisions being made by many research, development, and engineering enterprises. Some months ago, in the heat of the debate over the federal budget, Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) wrote a letter to Science magazine on this subject (Domenici, 1997) that captured the current national fiscal dilemma quite well. He pointed out that 65 percent, or $786 billion, of the annual federal budget is spent without any congressional appropriations action (15 percent of the budget goes for payment on the national debt, and another 50 percent pays for entitlement programs). Slightly over half (18 percent) of the remaining "discretionary" portion of the budget goes to defense, leaving just 17 percent, or $272 billion, to cover all nondefense operations of the government, including all nondefense R&D. The latter consumes about $30 billion (see Larsen, 1997; R&D Magazine, 1997).

Another dimension to this puzzle is that, currently, around one-third of the nation's total annual investment in defense and nondefense R&D is carried out through or by the federal government, at a cost of about $70 billion. In contrast to most other countries of the world, over half (about 55 percent) of federal R&D spending supports defense missions, and a good deal of R&D in industry is carried out in service of defense-related markets. The rest of the federal research portfolio - the $30 billion mentioned above - is apportioned as follows: $10.7 billion for health; $7.3 billion for space; and $12 billion for everything else. These numbers and allocations will undoubtedly change, perhaps dramatically, in the next decade, and the affected institutions will struggle to adapt to the new environment.

An Unfocused Desire for Change
Perhaps more important, at least over the long term, is that the government is becoming involved in the nation's R&D enterprise in other important ways, beyond simply doing or funding research. These include regulating the fruits of research through patents, copyrights, and antitrust law; regulating science-and-technology-intensive industries such as health care, telecommunications, energy, and transportation; being a major consumer of the products of R&D and of technology; and sponsoring and otherwise influencing the education of scientists and engineers and of the general public about science and technology, the latter being perhaps the most difficult challenge of the new millennium.

The bottom line is that government is a big player in the nation's science and technology enterprise and will remain so regardless of what is happening right now in Washington. But, the nature of that involvement is changing dramatically. Regrettably, an unfocused desire for change seems to be driving some of the current discussion about U.S. science and technology policy, for example that related to the fate of the national laboratories and the deregulation of some industries.

Let me illustrate the potential downside if we don't respond to Mr. Jefferson's concern about having an informed electorate, especially regarding issues related to science and technology. Energy policy has become much more complicated in the last 25 years as energy supply and use have become inextricably linked to the environment, national security, and economic prosperity. Oil has always dominated debates about U.S. national energy policy, with the issue often framed around the problem of oil-import vulnerability and the resulting, very difficult political trade-offs (e.g., gasoline taxes, government programs and incentives for private investment in developing new energy technologies, etc.) Experts' disagreements about what to do are usually rooted in substantively different policy perspectives, which focus either on regulatory or market-driven solutions.

At the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), we often wrestled with such issues.1 For example, shortly after the start of Operation Desert Storm, OTA received a letter from the Gallup Organization reporting on their latest opinion poll. That poll - taken just weeks after U.S. troops moved into Iraq - found that 47 percent of the American public was unaware that the United States imported any oil from the Middle East, and only a slightly smaller percentage was unaware that we imported any oil at all. Given this state of affairs, one can easily see how legislators may be constrained in making (scientifically or technologically) sound science and technology policy, when the voters themselves are largely uniformed about the issues.

Let me conclude by noting that all of us in the science and engineering communities have a responsibility to foster understanding about science and technology - both in the public at large and among our elected officials. Former OTA Board Chairman George Brown (D-Calif.) called OTA Congress's "defense against the dumb." It should not be a surprise to anyone that science and technology policymaking is very difficult in Washington. It is quite easy to make bad decisions.

I believe there are a variety of what might be described as "political and economic system failures" that have frustrated technology policy initiatives in recent years. Among the more important are:

  • Short time horizon. Both our political and economic systems are focused on the short term - the next congressional election or the next quarter's earnings report. Long-term policy considerations, like those often associated with science and technology, are frequently not taken into account.
  • Political-system inertia. The U.S. political system, operating under a very conservative constitution with many checks and balances, favors the status quo. Such a system requires consensus building that can be difficult in a country with so many competing values and interests.
  • Disagreement over the role of government. The major political parties as well as other powerful constituencies disagree about the degree to which government should be an activist in technology policy. The shift from activist policies in the 1970s, to a laissez-faire approach in the 1980s, to more moderate policies in the early 1990s, to the Republican revolution of the mid-1990s has been a hectic ride.
  • Poorly informed public. As in the energy-policy example, issues in science and technology are often complex, and the public has a poor knowledge base upon which to base policy choices or support for political candidates.
  • Weak political parties. On many technology-related issues, rather than speaking with a single voice, the major political parties are splintered by regional or special-interest concerns.
  • Government organization. Jurisdiction in the Congress over technology issues is spread out among many committees and subcommittees. Similarly, authority in the Executive Branch for developing and implementing technology-related policy is diffused across multiple levels.

The new millennium will bring with it many challenges precipitated by the breathtaking development of science and technology over the past half-century. Government will have to adapt to the rate of change, especially as it relates to the globalization of the economy and the moral and ethical questions posed by developments in information and biotechnology. As Thomas Jefferson warned us, democracy functions well only when the electorate is informed about the issues upon which it must decide. In an increasingly technology-dependent world, the task of keeping the electorate and public policymakers knowledgeable enough to make informed decisions will become increasingly difficult. Addressing this problem should be a high priority of institutions like the National Academies, Sigma Xi, and the professional societies.2

Domenici, P. 1996. The reality of science funding. Science 273(5280):1319.

Joffe, J. 1997. America the inescapable. New York Times Magazine, June 8, pp. 38-44.

Larson, C. F. 1997. R&D in industry. Pp. 31-38 in Research and Development FY 1998, AAAS Report XXII. Washington, D.C.: American Association for the Advancement of Science.

R&D Magazine. 1997. Basic Research White Paper. Des Plaines, Ill.: Cahners Publishing Co.

Rosenberg, N., and L.E. Birdsell. 1986. How The West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books.

1. In the early 1970s, Congress created the Office of Technology Assessement (OTA) to advise it on issues of science and technology. OTA was a very small (200 staff) nonpartisan agency with a governing board made up of equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats from both houses of Congress. In response to requests from the congressional committees, OTA conducted major studies in virtually all areas of science and technology. Unfortunately, OTA was closed down last year, a casualty of the "Republican revolution."

Without the OTA, it will be very difficult for the Congress in the future to have a fully informed debate on complex science and technology issues, even if the Academies of Sciences and Engineering - and other institutions outside Congress - attempt to fill that role. In fact, it is likely that something like an OTA will resurface on Capitol Hill because of the increasing science and technology content of the issues facing the nation.

2. Many of these issues will be discussed at a forthcoming Sigma Xi forum, "Trends in Industrial Innovation: Industry Perspectives and Policy Implications."

About the Author:Peter Blair is executive director of Sigma Xi, adjunct professor of public policy analysis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and former assistant director of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. This paper is adapted from remarks he made at the Aspen Institute on 6 July, 1997.