From Technology Politics to Technology Policy

By Branscomb, Lewis M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

From Technology Politics to Technology Policy


Branscomb, Lewis M., Issues in Science and Technology


One of the most contentious issues in the 1995-96 congressional session was the Clinton administration's technology policy priorities and programs. Although one might expect Republicans to support efforts aimed at improving the performance of U.S. companies, many conservatives opposed these programs as "corporate welfare," called for the abolition of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration (and the department itself), and criticized many of the administration's high-profile R&D partnerships with the private sector.

The vehemence of the attacks came as a surprise to many observers. The evolution of a bipartisan policy for U.S. science and technology (S&T) that seemed to be emerging by the end of the Bush administration had collapsed. President Bush had endorsed federal cost-shared investments in private firms to create "precompetitive, generic" technology in his technology policy declaration of September 1990 and had sought modest increases in funding for the Commerce Department's Advanced Technology Program (ATP), which he had signed into law. When President Clinton took office in 1993, he called for a big boost in ATP funding, plus federal cost-sharing with the private sector in programs such as the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, the Defense Department's Technology Reinvestment Program (TRP), and later the Environmental Technology Initiative. Most of these programs were designed to help agencies achieve their specific missions, but ATP had as its sole purpose the strengthening of U.S. high-technology industry, and TRP had the mixed objective of smoothing defense conversion and increasing defense use of commercial technologies. ATP was the flagship of the Clinton technology policy, but by 1994 it had become a lightning rod for Republican conservatives.

When their party gained control of Congress in the 1994 elections, many Republicans became more outspoken in their opposition to the Democrats' agenda. They demanded a halt to ATP and to many other technology programs. Some called for nothing less than a return to the 1960s, when military R&D dominated government spending and the private sector was expected to exploit the spinoffs that trickle down from defense research and academic basic science.

Fortunately, the most strident voices did not prevail. To reverse course to that extent would have had disastrous consequences for the United States. Commercial technology, driven by bigger and more competitive markets, has outstripped the defense industry in many areas. With declining defense budgets, neither a captive defense industry for the military nor reliance on spinoffs for the commercial economy is a credible strategy. The nation needed to find a new way to promote technology innovation.

The Clinton administration continued to focus on R&D spending as the primary instrument of technology policy. It began an effort to shift the emphasis from military to civilian technology by promising to move from a federal R&D budget that was 60 percent military and 40 percent civilian to one that was evenly split. Progress has been made in this direction primarily through reductions in defense spending. Although the spending shift is a step in the right direction, the administration has failed to link this action to a comprehensive innovation-based economic policy.

The need for a consensus policy for S&T can be seen in the extraordinary changes that have swept over private industry all around the world. New patterns of innovative activity and new multifirm industrial structures are emerging. Many of the largest firms have cut back on corporate research and are outsourcing more and more of the components that go into their final products. As a result, the focus of innovation is shifting from the multinationals, with their university-like central laboratories, to the dozens of hungry firms in their supply chains. This is unleashing a wave of opportunity for creativity and entrepreneurship in the smaller, technically specialized firms, but their sights are set on relatively short time horizons.

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From Technology Politics to Technology Policy
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