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Unlocking the Future

By George Brown, D-CA, Minority Leader, US House Science Committee

The National Science Policy report Unlocking our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy [see www.house.gov/science/science_policy_report.cfm and APS News Back Page November 1998,] attempts to provide some guidance to Congress on science policy for the coming years. I appreciate the hard work done by the report's author, Congressman Ehlers, but I cannot endorse the report as written because it fails to take on some of the issues I think are most important to the future health of the scientific enterprise. However, I fully expect this report to stimulate a lot of discussion and thinking.

Any discussion surrounding this report or this broad topic must be put in context and not viewed as an isolated event. Just as the growth of science has accrued over centuries through the contributions of many individuals, working in different disciplines and cultures, so has science policy expanded and developed as it seeks to define and implement the role of science in achieving broader societal goals. This process has never been smooth and continuous, although the outcome seems to create inexorable change.

Vannevar Bush, although a towering figure in science policy in the United States, was not the first, nor will he be the last, to offer a framework conceptualizing the role of science in the world.

President Gerald Ford helped redefine the Federal role in science policy with the signing of the Science Policy Act of 1976, a major work of the House Science and Technology Committee. While never fully implemented, this Act led to the further definition of the Federal role in technology transfer and advanced technology development in the 1988 Trade Bill signed by President Reagan. This Act opened up a restructuring of the broad area of government-industry-university cooperation as one way of making the U.S. national industrial system more competitive with the national systems of Europe and Asia, which historically had encouraged closer ties between government and industry.

During the Bush Administration, under the skilled guidance of his Science Advisor, Dr. D. Allan Bromley, and with the input of many science and technology organizations, continued progress was made in improving the process of innovation, of moving new inventions and technologies from the labs to the marketplace, and defining, through the device of cooperative research and development agreements, the legal structure for individual institutional agreements.

With the end of the Cold War, this policy debate has intensified. The House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology issued a report in 1992 on the health of research. The Clinton Administration has attempted to make its imprint on science policy with the 1994 report, Science in the National Interest, a product of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This report prompted Congressional hearings and a renewed discussion of science and technology policy at the national level. All of this background is offered to provide an historical perspective on our current discussions. By way of providing some context, I would offer some guiding principles that I think will be useful as we enter into an ongoing dialogue about the future of science policy.

1. A new science policy should reflect our understanding of the process of creativity and innovation. Virtually no one still believes in the Bush-era linear model of scientific breakthroughs leading inexorably to technological developments. Despite report language endorsing a more sophisticated model of science and technology innovations arising through an iterative process, the Ehlers report ultimately puts its money on the old linear model by emphasizing Federal support for "basic" research. The report provides no guidance on how the Federal government should determine that a "market failure" has occurred in the downstream parts of the R&D process or what types of policies would be appropriate to redress such failures. I think we should work together to develop a policy on the appropriate limits of Federal support that fits with our understanding of how innovation actually works. Let's put our money where our model is.

Further, the Ehlers report seems to support the traditional "hard" sciences with only passing mentions of engineering or the social sciences. I think we need a more holistic conception of what constitutes important science and worthwhile endeavors. An argument can be made that the most pressing issues facing our society - crime, education reform, social justice - are more likely to be addressed through investments in social science rather than in the hard sciences. Yet, the report is silent on the need to support this important research.

2. A new science policy should articulate the public's interest in supporting science - the goals and values the public should expect of the scientific enterprise. Over fifty years ago, Vannevar Bush argued that science was worth public support because it could "insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world." I think those general goals are still valid today. However, I also believe that we need to do a more rational job of identifying specific social needs that science can help us remedy. What are the long-term goals for society which the public should expect from these investments? To put it simply, science for what end? It isn't enough to declare science a public good and walk away from the table. When we use public resources to support science and technology, we should clearly identify the public purposes which we desire to achieve.

In addition to clearly articulating the goals for science, we need to squarely face the values that science can help enhance or undermine. I am particularly concerned about the possibility that increasing technological sophistication and mal-distribution of educational opportunity could create a two-tier society. What steps can we take to guarantee that we do not become a society of technological haves and have nots? This is a question of justice and equity in access to science education, and to the fruits of the scientific and technological enterprise.

To give just one example, it is unfair to use public funds for biomedical research if the fruits of that research are so expensive that only a handful of the most economically advantaged can enjoy them. That is a hidden redistribution of wealth and life-expectancy from poorer Americans to richer Americans under the guise of "basic" research in the life sciences. A new science policy must wrestle with these types of questions.

3. A new science policy should point towards decision-making tools for better investment choices. Having identified clear goals and values, a new science policy should point towards methods we can use for making better decisions. We need a yardstick by which to measure progress. Some of the elements for that are in place. For example, the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) challenges our agencies to develop comprehensive goals and measurements. However, in research and development programs, GPRA is still a fairly blunt instrument and is in need of fine-tuning.

The Office of Science and Technology Policy is in a position to provide some overall coordination for our science policy, but it doesn't always have the muscle to make its desires stick with executive agencies. Finally, Congress has wonderful leadership in both parties on science policy questions, but we suffer from a disorganized process for passing authorizations and appropriations that leads to sub-optimal outcomes. I think that we need to tackle all of these elements of decision-making as we move towards a more rational analysis of the major problems facing society - affordable health, broadly based economic opportunity, sustainable environmental policies and social discontent - and of the science needed to address those problems.

I hope that as we begin a dialogue on the Ehlers report, we can use these principles to inform the debate. I look forward to working with my friends inside and outside of Congress.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette