CHAPTER 1

THE CHANGING CONTEXT FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

In recent years, the contexts in which science and technology are performed in the United States have undergone fundamental changes —changes that will continue into the future. Each aspect of the research and development (R&D) system—from the source of its funding to the ways in which it contributes to broad societal objectives—is now receiving critical attention. Americans continue to support the R&D enterprise as a whole, but they require both greater accountability and a rationale for research that reflects today’s new circumstances.

America’s strong public support for scientific and technological research is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Before World War II, the United States built its strength largely on new techniques of mass production, its large and rapidly expanding domestic market, the availability of inexpensive raw materials, and lively entrepreneurial traditions. Much of our basic science was imported from Europe, and many technologies were borrowed from abroad or based on research done elsewhere.

World War II dramatically altered the relationship between science, engineering, and the government. The atomic bomb, radar, nylon, penicillin, electronic computers, and a host of other products demonstrated the power of fundamental research when combined with engineering skills. Americans emerged from the war with a wholly new appreciation of the research enterprise and of the products it could generate.

This new appreciation was focused and elaborated in Vannevar Bush ’s 1945 report Science, the Endless Frontier.1 Bush,



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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era CHAPTER 1 THE CHANGING CONTEXT FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY In recent years, the contexts in which science and technology are performed in the United States have undergone fundamental changes —changes that will continue into the future. Each aspect of the research and development (R&D) system—from the source of its funding to the ways in which it contributes to broad societal objectives—is now receiving critical attention. Americans continue to support the R&D enterprise as a whole, but they require both greater accountability and a rationale for research that reflects today’s new circumstances. America’s strong public support for scientific and technological research is a somewhat recent phenomenon. Before World War II, the United States built its strength largely on new techniques of mass production, its large and rapidly expanding domestic market, the availability of inexpensive raw materials, and lively entrepreneurial traditions. Much of our basic science was imported from Europe, and many technologies were borrowed from abroad or based on research done elsewhere. World War II dramatically altered the relationship between science, engineering, and the government. The atomic bomb, radar, nylon, penicillin, electronic computers, and a host of other products demonstrated the power of fundamental research when combined with engineering skills. Americans emerged from the war with a wholly new appreciation of the research enterprise and of the products it could generate. This new appreciation was focused and elaborated in Vannevar Bush ’s 1945 report Science, the Endless Frontier.1 Bush,

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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era who was head of the federal Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, argued that new knowledge generated by basic scientific research was essential to the national defense, the war against diseases, and the creation of new products, new industries, and new jobs. Traditional patronage of basic science—primarily from philantropies and other private sources—was no longer sufficient; only the federal government had the resources and the broad public mandate to take full advantage of the promise offered by science. During the decades after the war, the vision of Vannevar Bush was prominently realized.2 Basic research was championed by both the federal government and private industry. It was nourished in industrial laboratories and in America’s rapidly expanding network of colleges and universities. 3 (The appendix describes the federal government’s current role in supporting research and development.) The quick expansion of research and of scientific and technical personnel brought dramatic results, from a vaccine against polio to versatile new plastics, from transistor-powered electronic devices to the human exploration of space. A CHANGING WORLD Today’s relationship between the research community and the public is more complex. It is the product of many changes— in science, in engineering, in modern society, and in the relations among nations. These changes have weakened some of the premises underlying the federal support of science and technology while reinforcing others. Economically, the most important new reality is the intensification of international competition. In the past two decades, as transportation and communication costs have declined, trade barriers have fallen, and industries around the world have developed, the volume of world trade has risen sharply. New automobiles, agricultural products, and consumer electronics arrive daily from foreign lands. The development of foreign economies

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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era has been an important element of postwar U.S. foreign policy. But the development of these economies has diluted an important element of America’s trade advantage: dominant access to its own large domestic market. At the same time, science and engineering capacities have strengthened swiftly in other countries. Much of the scientific knowledge and many of the technologies developed here since World War II have diffused to other countries through technology licensing, the growth of transnational corporations, publication in the open literature, and other routes of technology transfer. Other nations have invested heavily in the research, advanced training, institutions, and infrastructure needed to use existing technologies and to generate new skills and technologies. Foreign companies have become adept at absorbing technologies developed elsewhere and at bringing their own improvements to those technologies. In many of these countries, technology transfer has been enhanced through governmental measures, such as support and coordination of research and development and protection of domestic markets. In addition, global political changes have given the United States the opportunity to redefine its military objectives and other important governmental policies, including those that involve science and technology. The collapse of the Soviet Union has decreased the importance of military power relative to economic power as the source of world leadership. International flows of people, capital, and ideas have all increased, creating new wealth in some nations and severe problems in others. Economic crises have destabilized the political structure of many countries. America’s leadership in this chaotic environment will be critically important for international stability, and America ’s own economic strength is the key to maintaining that leadership. NEW QUESTIONS FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY Powerful trends in the United States have shaped public attitudes toward science and technology. The need to provide

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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era better health care at affordable cost has challenged both the technical and political communities. Citizens question the effectiveness of our education systems. Broad concern for the environment has generated a demand for new methods of manufacturing, energy generation, and waste disposal. The intertwined economic, political, and social changes of recent years have had direct consequences for the public’s support of science and technology. In the past, this support has rested largely on the assumption that science and technology would contribute to national objectives by helping to ensure security and by generating new products, services, and economic growth. Today, this assumption is being questioned. Primacy in science has not prevented the loss of international market share. Continued biomedical advances have failed to produce uniformly affordable health care. Environmental threats persist despite our greater ecological knowledge and analytical skills. Although science and technology are but two facets of these complex problems, the persistence of these problems has moved the relationship between science, technology, and society onto new and uncertain ground. The research and development conducted by industry also has come under pressure.4 Because of corporate restructuring and the slowdown in productivity and economic growth, some companies have reduced their commitment to fundamental research to concentrate on short-term objectives. Private U.S. funding for research and development has barely kept up with inflation in recent years, while R&D funding has surged in other countries. Science and technology themselves have been changing. The extension of knowledge in some areas now depends on large and costly projects, and even comparatively small projects require costly instrumentation and other expensive inputs.5 Federal investment in scientific and technological megaprojects has generated tensions between the proponents of these projects and the great majority of scientists engaged in work requiring less-intensive capital investments. As other demands on the federal budget

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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era increase, the funding of one expensive activity can lead to cutbacks for many smaller activities, even though these smaller activities generate the bulk of new scientific knowledge. Other changes have brought new stresses to particular areas of science and engineering.6 Some fields have more scientists than can be adequately supported even though the total federal R&D budget has been growing. A belief among some scientists that all excellent science should be supported has led to increasing demands on the federal budget. An increased competition for limited funds may have persuaded many researchers to be more cautious in their work and thought. Some scientists and engineers engaged in research say that their profession is no longer as fulfilling as it once was—a message that seems to be reaching young Americans who express less interest in pursuing careers in science and engineering. Finally, the ongoing changes in science, technology, and society have affected the relationship between scientists and the general public, including the public’s representatives in Congress.7 Some members of the public are dissatisfied with the quality and cost of education in many research universities, saying that academic scientists spend too much time in the laboratory and not enough in the classroom. Other citizens blame scientists and engineers when technological change brings social disruption or personal distress, such as the loss of jobs; these negative effects of new technologies can contribute to public skepticism about claims of future progress. Changes in society have created problems that cannot be resolved through new scientific and engineering knowledge alone, yet public expectations for technical solutions persist. THE FUTURE The changes that are affecting the relationship between science, engineering, and society, though in many cases disconcerting, are laying the foundation for that relationship in the twenty-first century. It is not possible to predict in detail how science, technology, and society will evolve. But, by extrapolating from

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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era powerful present-day trends, we can anticipate an even greater interdependence between science, engineering, and society. We can also imagine some of the challenges that will accompany this interdependence: Industrial productivity, fueled by advances in technology, will continue to increase, bringing many benefits to businesses, consumers, and economies. But higher productivity does not necessarily mean more jobs; it may mean fewer. For example, the high productivity of U.S. agriculture has changed this nation from a country populated largely by farmers to a country in which 3 percent of all Americans can grow enough food for everyone else in the country and for export as well. Changes in technology are understood to be a potent generator of new jobs but also bring about short-term job dislocations.8 Where will people find employment in the future? Information technologies will continue to change the ways we work, learn, and interact with others. Many of these technologies are likely to reach the most remote places on our planet. Who will control these technologies and the information they convey, and to what ends? Science- and technology-based industries will continue to spread internationally. Governments will compete across the R&D spectrum as they seek to encourage the development of proprietary products and new knowledge. For example, the countries of the Pacific Rim, which once depended heavily on technology transfer from other countries, are already rapidly building up their basic research capabilities while they continue their focus on technological development. How will countries unable to develop modern industries or research capabilities compete? All levels of education will undergo revolutionary changes as information technologies come to permeate instruction. Children in this country and in other countries who are unable to

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SCIENCE, TECHNOLOGY, AND THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: National Goals for a Near Era take advantage of new technologies risk being left behind. What will be the long-term effects of a shift away from traditional teaching? These are difficult questions that cannot be completely answered today. But they make it clear that, as science-driven technologies continue to grow in importance, they will transform the ways people communicate, do business, and conduct their lives. The pace of discovery in science is accelerating, as is the pace of technological advance and the adoption of new technologies. Some of the changes that these new technologies cause in human life will be disruptive, but these technologies also offer the potential for great improvements in the quality of our lives. REFERENCES 1. Vannevar Bush. Science, the Endless Frontier. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1945 (reprinted 1990). 2. Bruce L.R. Smith. American Science Policy Since World War II. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1990. 3. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Renewing the Promise: Research-Intensive Universities and the Nation Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992. 4. National Science Board, Committee on Industrial Support for R&D. The Competitive Strength of U.S. Industrial Science and Technology: Strategic Issues. Washington, D.C.: National Science Foundation, 1992. 5. President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Megaprojects in the Sciences. Washington, D.C.: Office of Science and Technology Policy, 1992. 6. U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment. Federally Funded Research: Decisions for a Decade. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1991. 7. Task Force on the Health of Research. Chairman’s Report to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992. 8. Committee on Science, Technology, and Public Policy, Panel on Technology and Employment. Technology and Employment: Innovation and Growth in the U.S. Economy Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1987.

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