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link to published version: Communications of the ACM, June, 1996

accesses since April 2, 1996

Hal Berghel's Digital Village....

U.S. Technology Policy in the Information Age

During the first few years of the Clinton Administration the frequency of published articles and reports on the deficiencies of the U.S. science and technology posture reached a feverish pace. Articles and opinions representing varied perspectives on the issue found homes in publications from erudite texts and monographs to the popular press. It appeared for awhile that opining about science and technology policy might become a national pastime.

In retrospect, while the dialog has been healthy, it's not clear that much has come from it, especially within the field of computing. It is an open question whether, or to what extent, such initiatives as the High Performance Computing Act, the National Information Infrastructure and the computers and network connectivity for schools programs will contribute critical advances in technology understanding that would not have occurred anyway without government involvement, perhaps at significantly less cost.

In fact, the promotion of a government- (vs. industry-) directed information infrastructure may well have impeded its progress. History may record that the hoopla over the "information superhighway" did little more than popularize a technology that was already highly evolved and well established within the computing industry and academia.

Is an overhaul of our technology policy likely to produce genuine, or merely cosmetic, changes? We are fearful that many of the proposed changes in technology policy ignore some fundamental realities: (a) the biggest hurdle to a successful U.S. global technology policy is the acceptance of enormous cultural differences between the institutional players, and (b) that there is ample reason to question the value of a pro-active government stance. These realities seem to mitigate against the potential effectiveness of the spectrum of technology policy proposals.


Several different positions emerged from the public debate. The "policy vacuum" group, represented by the Clinton Administration, several key Congressional leaders and some prominent government policy analysts, holds that the failure of the U.S. to maintain a dominant position in some areas of technology is primarily the result of a lack of a coherent, focused and realistic science and technology policy. On this view, the "science" component is working well enough as a free-standing unit but it isn't fully enough integrated with the U.S. technology transfer agenda. This is, they claim, to a large degree the result of the fact that the science community has avoided its responsibility to the society which they serve. The Vannevar Bush social contract between society and the science establishment has been irreparably broken it is argued.

Policy vacuumers believe that the first order of business should be the creation of a policy which is both mindful of our national security and sensitive to economic realities. With a carefully planned and accurately articulated implementation of same, the science and technology communities will re-define their missions, come to fit together like hand and glove, become more responsible to society, and as a result U.S. will regain its leadership position in technology.

A more-or-less opposing position has historically been held by some major institutional players in the big-and-hard science game. On this account, the fact that the U.S. leads the world in basic science and graduate education is sufficient reason to leave science and technology policy alone - a variation on the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" theme. This group was quite vocal some years back in its opposition to the Congressional mandate that the National Science Foundation place more emphasis on technology transfer and the needs of industry, a position articulated by then Director, Walter Massey.

In between these two camps, lies a pragmatic school. This group doesn't favor the wholesale restructuring of research priorities. but neither does it want to preserve the status quo. The solution lies, it is believed, in a more pragmatic approach to scientific research - one which doesn't ignore potential applications. It is there that the Government will get the most bang for its science and technology buck. A variation on this theme is that an overhaul of the research infrastructure, both academic and industrial, will produce the gains in efficiency and effectiveness necessary for U.S. global leadership.

While the intermediate position seems to us to be the more reasonable alternative, even it remains in some ways as unrealistic as more extreme positions which it seeks to moderate.


All three technology policy positions described above over- simplify the problem in our view. They all seem to ignore the time-honored traditions and well-entrenched cultures which drive the research establishment, and they under-estimate the enormous inertia behind the present science and technology infrastructure. For any of these proposals to succeed, there will first need to be revolutionary changes in our attitudes towards the proper role of publicly and privately supported research.

To illustrate this point, it is useful to begin with a reality check:

  1. For most of its history, the social benefit aspect of U.S. science and technology policy was primarily passive. Until quite recently the paradigm was the "spinoff" model of technology transfer whereby useful, globally-competitive technology was assumed to come to commerce as a by-product of Government- and military-sponsored research. The spinoff model never worked well, for the successes were by and large serendipitous. For every beaker of silicone spun off there are buckets of commercially useless polymers. And even when it worked, it was inefficient - a fact that was easy to overlook when funding for science and technology seemed limitless.

  2. The more active technology transfer policy which has evolved since the 1960's may not be working much better once the successes are measured against the ambient overall economic growth. This latest incarnation typically involves universities spawning start-up companies through their own industrial parks and business incubators which will seek to market technology in which the university has a vested interest. We suspect that successes, except in a fairly narrow range of settings and research areas would be difficult to document.
    We also suspect that the active policy will prove in the end to be only marginally more effective than the passive because it is typically conducted in a climate of mixed motives and convoluted organizational structure. Participants from the universities, the industrial sponsors and the start-up companies frequently wear too many hats and have too many different objectives to sustain a tightly focussed development effort for long without feeling the effects of debilitating distractions. The requirements of maximizing indirect costs, educating and supervising graduate students, advancing the frontiers of science, attracting investment and maintaining corporate solvency produce conflicting passions in otherwise like-minded colleagues.

  3. Government funding of science and technology is likely to decrease over time as a percentage of GNP. When the sentiment of Congress looks favorably toward reducing the funding for such "sacred cows" as Medicare, Food Stamps and children's lunches, while at the same time considering tax-reduction, the funding of science and technology is definitely in jeopardy. This past October 12, the House reduced the budget for Federal research agencies by $3 billion in their version of the Omnibus Civilian Science Authorization Act of 1995. We are very likely to enter the 21st century with most of our focus on the national debt and deficit spending, and less and less on the needs of science and technology.

  4. The variegation of the science and technology knowledge base works against cooperation. In some sub-cultures, primarily within industry, the knowledge is likely to be proprietary and informally documented. In academic cultures, it is usually public and disseminated in the scientific and technical literature. These are two fundamentally different, and largely incompatible and irreconcilable approaches toward knowledge acquisition and diffusion, and these differences permeate all aspects of the two sub-cultures. It surfaces in the way the cultures look at their mission, their competitors and the world in which they operate. The corporate worlds of non-disclosure agreements and ftp lockouts on network firewalls are as foreign to academic institutions as peer review and indirect cost accounting are to business. Even within these cultures, associations are frequently more competitive than cooperative and collaborative. The 1984 National Cooperative Research Act doesn't seem from our vantage point to have changed much.

  5. The Government's track record in support of science and technology reveals mixed performance. To be sure, diseases have been cured and life expectancies extended. But we also have invested in superconducting super-colliders and Star War's lasers, and placed earthquake engineering centers where there are few earthquakes. When added to targeted purchasing practices run amok, cost overruns, and documented biases in the peer review of proposals for Government-funded research, one wonders whether science is ever able to hold its own when mixed together with politics. The occasional boondoggle, bad and/or secretive science, and confused priorities detract from the enthusiastic endorsement one would like to give to Government support of science, generally.

  6. Comparisons to successful technology transference practices in other nations may be very misleading when they ignore vast cultural differences. These cultural differences impact almost every aspect of institutional life and well-being, from the employee attitudes toward corporate rivalry and collaboration, especially between domestic and international corporations, to their acceptance of international copyright and patent law.


Within the last few years in our own field, enormous energy has been put into discussions of encryption standards (noteworthy instances include the Clipper chip and the Digital Signature Standard), new copyright policies for the digital age, the v- chip, telecommunications policy, and obscenity over the Internet, to name but a few. In each case, it is not clear whether many of the scientific and technical communities are confident in the outcome of the resulting legislative initiatives and policy decisions,

Espousing a doctrine, policy or legislative mandate is the easiest part of technology policy. Making it work is another matter. Even seemingly innocuous and unobjectionable recommendations like fostering pre-competitive cooperation among corporations don't seem problematic until they are held up against corporate non-disclosure agreements and proprietary research agendas. Saying it doesn't make it happen.

We feel that an acceptance of the cultures involved should be a fundamental precept for future discussions of technology policy, for these cultures aren't likely to change any time soon. This acceptance leads us away from the technology transfer paradigm where applications follow basic research, and toward strategic research where applications are anticipated before the research begins.

All of the business incubators and small business initiatives in the world won't make a nation globally competitive. They may well spawn a multitude of successful start-up ventures, and that may be good for the economy, but we won't be able to incubate ourselves into a competitive technological stance. At best, Government-sponsored start-ups will be progenitors of the corporations which develop cutting-edge technology.

A primary reason for this lies in the very nature of new commercial ventures. There the focus is on cash flow, meeting payrolls, finding market niches, establishing distribution channels and, most important, remaining solvent until the products become successful in the marketplace. Global competitiveness requires an expensive commitment to R&d (vs. r&D) which is unlikely to be sustainable under these economic conditions. While support of technology transfer may be good for the economy, it will not do as the foundation for a technology policy.

Strategic research on the other hand may provide the needed focus. Strategic research is a basic-research-cum-purpose approach. Research evolves with the range of applications rather than preceding them. Strategic research is genuine peer-reviewed research (big R) which differes from basic research more in motivation than perhaps anything else.

For both basic and strategic research, achievements are measured by some form of peer review, by the production of useful and/or interesting artifacts and by novelty and innovativeness. In addition, strategic research would contribute directly to global competitiveness and security by fostering mutually-rewarding partnerships, to the extent that they may be realized at all, between academia and industry and produces prototypes of all shapes and sizes.

Strategic research is also "surgical" - it is conducted with one eye focused on solutions of real problems. It also conforms to the highest standards of science and remains committed to the peer review process. When conducted properly it overcomes the two major criticisms of its basic research and pork-barrel science siblings: it is both relevant and rigorous. It is not divorced from, or adjunct to, the business of science, as technology transfer is - it remains part of the business and culture of science.

From the practical point of view, strategic research is targeted toward the needs of the institutional sponsor but has sufficient technical and scientific depth to warrant the interest of the professional researcher. From our experience, only a small fraction of the potential collaborations between the research community and private or governmental sponsors have been found to have this property. Finding win-win strategic research partnerships is an art not a science.


This space of this column does not allow discourse on technology policy. We will defer that to another forum. But for those who resonate with our observations and suggestions, there should be concern that the era of technology policy overhaul in which we live may not fix the larger problems.

If our analysis is correct, the importance of a shift away from the technology transfer paradigm to that of strategic research cannot be overstated - the former doesn't seem to be sustainable and productive in the new economic climate. We foresee a return to the old days of conducting science - before the days of Vannevar Bush, and before the Cold War. We expect that within 25 years the number of college and universities which garner significant research support will be but a small fraction of those in place now - perhaps only three or four dozen. And of the research done, most will be strategic, even if it involves Federal funding agencies. The days of widespread curiosity- driven research are coming to an end. Even pork barrel research will be rotated through a very few hallowed research institutions within the most populous states, because there won't be much pork to divide.

If our predictions hold, ever-shrinking Government resources will bring an economic triage on research institutions. The premier research institutions may be left unscathed, but the second and third tier institutions will be forced to re-define their missions if they are to survive. Those universities which have prepared for a strategic research orientation will have a competitive advantage over its peers in obtaining sought-after research support, while technology transfer agendas will be increasingly difficult to support. As we have argued, a major shortcoming of the current technology policy advocates is that they fail to address this likelihood and the cultural realities which bring it about.

So it may be that a passive approach toward technology policy will survive after all. But in the 21st century, it may well be oriented toward strategic research rather than technology transfer.

Hal Berghel is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Arkansas and Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Arkansas Society for Computer and Information Technology. He has been interested in technology and public policy for many years. Some readers may recall that his last Communications' article on computer contributions legislation (March, 1984; pp. 188-193) spawned a lively debate with Congressman Pete Stark on whether the so-called Apple Bill was a boondoggle. The Apple Bill was eventually defeated.

A far more thorough discussion of these issues than can be provided here may be found in Lewis Branscomb (ed.), Empowering Technology: Implementing a U.S. Strategy, M.I.T. Press, 1993.

An academic perspective on such technology policy issues may be found in J. Hartmanis and H. Lin (eds.) Computing the Future, National Academy Press, 1992. A reference to the underachievement of technology transfer is "Turning off Spinoffs", Chronicle of Higher Education, July 21, 1995, pp. A33- A35.

The views expressed above are the author's alone, and not necessarily those of the ACM.