Reorienting for Sustainable Development: Support for a National Science and Technology Policy

Article excerpt

Economic growth and environmental security in the United States require a national science technology policy that adequately supports a vibrant science and technology community Significant technological innovations that address long-term environmental issues can only be produced by such a community, given the narrow research focus of the defense community and the short-term nature of corporate research and development (R&D). While these interests have promoted some environmentally relevant science and technology innovations in their infant stages, they cannot provide the fundamental technological framework needed to produce a truly sustainable economy in the 21st century

Despite public enthusiasm for environmentally friendly growth, the national science community does not receive consistent or adequate political support. Congress has oscillated between the passage of science funding(1) that does not even keep up with inflation to playing favorites with certain federal agencies.(2) As a result, the country's science and technology community is atomized and uncoordinated, and technological advancement is often left to large private interests and a few loosely cooperative academic powerhouses. Private firms focus their research efforts according to short-term, market-driven priorities, motives which often contradict long-term sustainable development and economic growth.(3) Large academic institutions, which are generally more sensitive to long-term concerns, are not fully capable of directing the course of national research and national innovation systems.4 However, the absence of a national policy has put them in the position of doing so.

Poor coordination among federal agencies and inconsistent support from national leaders results in inadequate national science policy. A critical look at the effect of these political dynamics on the scientific community reveals the need for a national policy that is consistent and directed, supportive yet unobtrusive. A clear, sustainable technology policy would steer the national science community towards more intensive and coordinated research in areas of technology that can make environmentally sustainable and economically robust development a reality.


Science, Technology and Economic Growth

The Wall Street Journal's March 1997 survey of 350 leading economists found that two-thirds believed that the right government policies could boost annual US economic growth by .05 percent, a substantial amount.(5) Moreover, 43 percent advocated more government spending for education, and science and technology R&D. Only 10 percent thought reducing government spending as a share of domestic product was vital to boosting growth.(6) Indeed, the link between technological innovation and economic advancement has long been recognized, with R&D seen as a major force behind the emergence of many of the new materials, products, processes and systems that promote economic advancement. As far back as 1911, Joseph A. Schumpeter integrated innovation into economic development theory by showing a positive correlation between involvement in a commercial transaction and the generation of new products, devices or systems.(7)

Despite consensus on the importance of innovation among economists, industrialists and even politicians, the last five years have seen science and technology research threatened rather than supported. While an overly bloated national debt can overrun liquid assets with interest payments, drive up interest rates and generally undermine investments in science and technology programs, efforts to reduce the budget deficit have endangered many nationally funded science and technology programs. Until the 1990s, U.S. Federal Government support for research held steady or increased, but funding declines have characterized recent budgets.(8) Should this trend continue, the United States will likely forfeit its position of leadership in science and technology--as well as its ability to maintain the health and quality of life of its citizens, compete in a global marketplace and assure national security. …