The State of U.S. Science and Technology: A Critical Crossroads

By Good, Mary L. | SRA Journal, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

The State of U.S. Science and Technology: A Critical Crossroads


Good, Mary L., SRA Journal


We now stand at a critical crossroads in U.S. science and technology. For 50 years, the United States has demonstrated an unwavering bipartisan commitment to maintaining our global technological dominance. This strong commitment, and the subsequent healthy federal R&D budgets, were driven largely by the belief that superior technology would give us the edge against our Cold War adversaries. This trust has been more than vindicated. We have won the Cold War, and in the process have created a strong industrial base and a powerful military force.

Our public investments in basic research, health research, and space and defense technology formed the basis for new growth industries and millions of jobs - in aerospace, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, advanced electronics, computers, and telecommunications. Those investments helped propel the United States into a world leadership position in these industries, in the Information Age, and in the new knowledge-based economy. And those investments helped build a U.S. science and technology infrastructure - spanning industry, government, and academia - that remains unparalleled in the world.

The problem before us is the need to forge a new paradigm for science and technology that is grounded in the competitive realities of today and contains a strategy for maintaining U.S. leadership in the world of tomorrow. We must recognize that, in the 21st century, our nation's science and technology needs and the character of the scientific and technical work force may be different from those of the past.

Today, we find ourselves in a new competition - for global markets, investment capital, and jobs - and the rewards that accrue to nations which capture their share. In this competition, we must focus on maximizing our economic growth and improving our overall standard of living.

This means that we must direct a large portion of our technical resources to those activities that increase productivity, improve quality, and expand our markets for the products of today and tomorrow. At the same time, we must invest in science and early technology development which will provide the next generation of technical manpower and emerging technologies to create the new products and perhaps whole new industries of the future.

Over the past 15 years, a new federal technology policy emerged, establishing a portfolio of programs to ensure that U.S. companies and workers have access to the technologies they will need to compete in the future. Such programs as the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program (ATP) represent a small fraction of the federal R&D investment, but promise great economic benefits to the nation. They are focused on high-risk, precompetitive technology development and on civilian use of federal laboratory expertise and resources.

These programs address the development of enabling and emerging technologies. New enabling technologies would support advances across a wide range of industries, while emerging technologies would drive the development of entirely new industries and classes of products and services.

While such technologies are the fundamental building blocks for future economic growth and competitiveness, often they are not pursued by individual companies in a competitive time frame, if at all, due to their high cost, high risk, complexity, distance from the market, and delayed returns. For example:

* Technology and product life cycles are getting shorter. In the electronics industry, the lifetime of a new model of personal computer is less than 2 years. A competitive player in commercial high technology may have to fund and manage three generations of technology simultaneously: one in full scale production, one in pilot production, and one in manufacturing process design and development. This could tax the budgets of even the largest firms.

* The cost and complexity of technology development are increasing.

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