Technology Policy in the Post-Cold War World

By Schafer, Todd; Hyland, Paul | Journal of Economic Issues, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Technology Policy in the Post-Cold War World

Schafer, Todd, Hyland, Paul, Journal of Economic Issues

Technology policy in the United States has been driven by the Pentagon for many decades. The civilian technology strategy was simply to hope for "spin-offs" from the nation's investment in military technology. Any public effort to improve the nation's manufacturing technology, for example, was dismissed as being beyond the appropriate government role. The strategy instead was to hope for investments in guided missiles to pay off in advances for machine tools.

In the post-Cold War world, careful strides toward a new technology policy are being taken. DARPA, the Defense Applied Research Projects Agency, has dropped the D. The Commerce Department is overseeing the federal critical technologies effort. On Capital Hill, the absence of a rubber-stamp veto has moved major technology bills from the Armed Services Committees into the hands of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. And the White House has initiated a bundle of blatantly civilian technology proposals.

But the influence of the Pentagon remains strong. ARPA is still housed at the Defense Department. The critical technologies around which the Commerce effort is centered were culled from a list assembled at DOD. And defense conversion continues to be the primary justification for technology legislation on the Hill and at the White House.

This paper will argue-from the perspective of legislative history-that in the long run, technology policy needs to make a clean break from the Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon. That is, "dual-use" is not good enough. In the short run, however, this paper will argue that the call for defense conversion policy has opened the door to civilian technology policy, and that in this realm the Armed Services Committee-and the Pentagon-can be a useful ally to the technology advocate.

Finally, this paper will argue, the election of Bill Clinton and the collapse of the Soviet Union have made all this politically possible. By using openly pro-technology rhetoric [Clinton and Gore 1992; 1993a; 1993b!, Clinton has influenced the debate to a degree that far exceeds the reach of his modest proposals. Unfortunately, though he has opened the door for a rational, needs-driven technology policy, the president has yet to step through it. It is therefore the obligation of technology champions to cultivate this climate, nudging the administration further down this path.


World War II essentially marks the beginning of government policy in science and technology. With a few exceptions, such as agriculture, the federal government was not seen as having a role in technological development before the 1940s. The success of the war effort, particularly the development and production of various weapon systems and the building of a massive manufacturing infrastructure, quickly solidified the government's expanded role.

In the ensuing decades, additional national missions deemed worthy of federal assistance (most notably space exploration, nuclear energy, and medicine) were added. This expanded the sphere of activities from which one could hope for "spin-offs" to serendipitously" occur. By the mid-1980s, however, over the strong objections of President Reagan, to whom "industrial policies" were anathema, a strong political movement formed around the issue of U.S. competitiveness. This coalition of industry leaders, policymakers, and academics laid the groundwork for today's technology discussions.

Over these 50 years, U.S. technology policy has taken a number of forms. Prominent among the federal activities are (1) funding of research and development; (2) direct procurement/ investment; and (3) subtler measures aimed at cooperative research and technology transfer. Whatever the form, policies have been overwhelmingly mission-oriented, with the primary mission being national security.

Research & Development

The historical preference for military research over civilian research has been extraordinary. …

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