Science Policy Matters

By Hutchison, Kay Bailey; Chubin, Daryl E. | Issues in Science and Technology, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Science Policy Matters

Hutchison, Kay Bailey, Chubin, Daryl E., Issues in Science and Technology

Daniel Sarewitz asks, "Does Science Policy Matter?" (Issues, Summer 2007). The answer is "absolutely yes." In a high-tech global economy, science and technology are indispensable to maintaining America's economic edge. In fact, historically, studies have shown that as much as 85% of the measured growth in per capita income has been due to technological change. In a very real sense, the research we do today is responsible for the prosperity we achieve tomorrow. For that reason, I believe Congress must support low tax rates as a catalyst for innovation.

Ever since President Reagan's tax cuts went into full effect in 1983, the U.S. economy has almost quintupled in size, the Dow Jones Industrial Average has surged from less than 1,000 to over 13,000, and a host of revolutionary technologies, from cell phones to DVDs, from iPods to the Internet, have enhanced productivity and our quality of life. In many cases, the low tax rates enabled dynamics entrepreneurs to secure the private investment they needed to create their own businesses, and in effect, jump-start the information revolution.

But despite our economic gains, Congress needs to play a more active role in shaping science and technology policy with federal funding. Last year, the National Academies released a startling report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which showed how unprepared we are to meet future challenges. According to the report, the United States placed near the bottom of 20 nations in advanced math and physics, and ranked 20th among all nations in the proportion of its 24-year-olds with degrees in science or engineering. Right now, we are experiencing a relative decline in the number of scientists and engineers, as compared with other fast-growing countries such as China and India. Within a few years, approximately 90% of all scientists and engineers in the world will live in Asia.

We are starting to see the consequences of our neglect in these fields. In the 1990s, U.S. patent applications grew at an annual rate of 10%, but since 2001, they've been advancing at a much slower rate (below 3%). In addition, the U.S. trade balance in high-tech products has changed dramatically, with China overtaking the United States as the world's largest exporter of information-technology products (and the United States becoming a net importer of those products).


I agree with Sarewitz that "the political case for basic research is both strong and ideologically ecumenical," as people across the political spectrum view scientific research as an "appropriate area of governmental intervention." For example, Congress recently passed the America Competes Act. This landmark legislation answered the challenge of the report from the National Academies to increase research, education, and innovation and make the United States more competitive in the global marketplace.

In addition, federal funding for basic research has increased substantially, although I am growing concerned that the emphasis of that funding is starting to shift from hard science to soft science. As government leaders, we have a responsibility to establish priorities for the taxpayers' money; and in that case, hard sciences (physical science and engineering) must assume a larger share of federal funding.

The bottom line is science policy does matter--and I thank you, as leaders of the scientific community, for your efforts to make the United States a better place to live, learn, work, and raise a family.


Republican of Texas

Daniel Sarewitz's "Does Science Policy Matter?" continues the tutorial begun with his 1996 Frontiers of Illusion, still one of the most compelling myth-busting texts for teaching science policy. More policy practitioners should read it, or at least this updated article.

Sarewitz carries the mantle of the late Rep. George Brown, for whom he worked through the House Science Committee. …

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