The View from California: The State Is a Science and Technology Trailblazer but a Laggard in Managing the Related Policy Dimension

By Barbour, Heather | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

The View from California: The State Is a Science and Technology Trailblazer but a Laggard in Managing the Related Policy Dimension


Barbour, Heather, Issues in Science and Technology


If what is happening in California is a leading indicator, and it usually is, many critical science and technology (S & T) policy debates are migrating from Washington to state capitals and even to local polling places. Unfortunately, the procedural, institutional, and human capacity for informed policymaking at these levels is often not as well developed as it is at the national level, which can result in confusing, contradictory, and short-sighted policy outcomes. Therefore, some attention to the health and functioning of non-national political processes and institutions, especially in California, is warranted.

Although federal dollars will always keep a good number of S & T policy decisions in Washington, state and local government leaders will increasingly be called on to guide us through many tough public conversations. As the state with its face to the future and its home on the technological frontier, California will likely have considerable influence on the direction and scope of the local, national, and even global public response to innovation. The state's leadership position in R & D--first among the states in federal, industry, and total R & D funding--means that new technology products and processes, and the concurrent social upheaval that inevitably comes with them, will likely happen here first.

S & T policymaking is already a staple of the California government's diet. Over the past decade, state lawmakers introduced an average of 270 bills per session (about 12 percent of all legislation) with some science or technology angle. California has also helped push the national envelope on issues such as financial privacy and identity theft. This year, Sacramento will decide whether to use the Global Positioning System to track criminals, whether to make peer-to-peer software makers liable for the illegal uses of their technology, and whether to stop Internet service providers from scanning the content of their subscribers' e-mail messages.

California's citizens are in the act as well. Although the 2004 statewide stem cell proposition dominated national headlines, there is also plenty of policymaking at the local level. For example, opponents of genetically modified (GM) products have been using a series of county-level ballot initiatives to institute what could eventually become a de facto statewide ban on GM foods, crops, and animals. Voters in Mendocino and Marin counties passed bans on GM products last year, and another dozen counties could be considering similar measures in the next few years.

California's solutions to the public challenges posed by S & T will inevitably shape overall policy trends, possibly for centuries to come. The economic and legal impact of these measures will certainly not stop at the state border, which is why even those who live and work outside the state should be watching it carefully.

What's at stake?

California's S & T-based economic leadership is renowned. These industries contribute $159.7 billion to the gross state product and employ 1.29 million people in the state. Less widely known are the factors that drive the California's high-tech engine: the relative availability of funding for research and startup companies, the state's education system and well-educated workforce, and the effects of industry clustering. Nearly all these inputs can be advanced or hindered by government policy, and some, such as research funding for state universities and the state education system, are directly attributable to policy and spending decisions made by state officials. Unenlightened thinking on the part of state leaders, especially as it relates to the research and education budget, could result in short-term solutions that ultimately jeopardize the state's long-term prosperity.

In addition to the economic and investment policy questions that state leaders must grapple with, there are some very dark clouds building at the nexus of environment, social issues, and S & T advances in California. …

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