The National Research Council (NRC) organized the National Forum on Harnessing Science and Technology for America's Economic Future in order to catalyze a broad national discussion of how science and technology can contribute to U.S. economic growth and living standards over the next 10 to 20 years. The forum was the second of two initiatives inspired by the report Enabling the Future, which recommended the establishment of a regular forum activity that would help to link science and technology with long-term societal goals.1 The NRC organized the forum with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A steering committee co-chaired by William Spencer, chairman of SEMATECH, and Dick Thornburgh, former governor of Pennsylvania and U.S. attorney general, planned and convened the forum, which was held February 2-3, 1998 (see Appendix A for forum agenda). The forum was designed to elicit participation from a wide range of experts and from the interested public. The 260 forum attendees, representing government, industry, and university perspectives from 34 U.S. states and a number of foreign countries, participated in plenary sessions and focused breakout discussions. This report uses material presented at the forum and later inputs from steering committee members. The conclusions and recommendations represent a consensus of the steering committee. The report contains chapters reflecting the major components of the forum
"This examination of the relationships between R&D investments and economic performance is long overdue. It is being forced upon us by the social disruption following the end of the Cold War, changes in high-technology industries, and dizzying advances in science."
—Representative George Brown
discussions. One exception is Chapter 5, "The University Role in Research," which is based on material provided by steering committee members after the forum.
The forum and follow-up discussions among the steering committee confirmed that this is an appropriate time for renewed national focus on the importance of science and technology for long-term economic growth, because of positive trends in the economic and political environment.
In contrast with the situation of just a few years ago, when many U.S. industries were being seriously challenged, the United States is perceived to be experiencing a high-technology-based resurgence. In the overall economy, unemployment and inflation are at the lowest levels seen in a generation. U.S.-based companies are setting the pace in the fast-growing information technology and biotechnology fields. U.S. manufacturing has been revitalized. The United States is seen as a leader in commercializing research through the creation of new technology-based firms.
During a period when the U.S. economy in general and high-technology in particular appear to be so strong, the need for increased national attention to the issues of science, technology, and economic development will not be obvious to all. But presentations and discussions at the forum raised several important reasons why current favorable economic trends should not be taken for granted.
Some forum participants questioned whether the United States as a nation is taking the appropriate actions needed to sustain scienceand technology-based growth over the long-term. Ensuring that the United States possesses the flexible, highly skilled human resource base required for science- and technology-based industries of the next century is one critical task. The importance of improving the quality of K-12 science and mathematics education is well recognized, but success also will depend on how we approach lifelong learning. It might be
necessary to develop new institutions and policies that encourage Americans to upgrade their knowledge and skills over the course of their careers. And, despite current success in innovation and commercialization, some question whether the United States and other countries are making adequate investments in advancing the fundamental knowledge that will underpin future innovation.
Furthermore, some regions and groups in U.S. society have not benefited extensively from recent economic growth and new technology. The forum focused on the U.S. economy and how science and technology can contribute to improved living standards for Americans over the long-term. Although recent advances in technology appear to have benefited Americans in their roles as consumers and shareholders, real wages for large segments of the U.S. population are only now beginning to rise substantially after a long period of stagnation. Ensuring that the opportunities and rewards of science- and technology-based growth are shared widely throughout U.S. society surely will remain a challenge.
Events of recent years have made it clear that complacency and hubris, for both countries and individual companies, can be dangerous in today's global economy. The current positive outlook for the United States can be reversed quickly. With competition among companies and industries increasing, winners and losers are not determined once and for all. For example, not many experts predicted the rapid emergence of Korea in microelectronics in the early 1990s, the prolonged economic slump in Japan, or the recent financial crisis in several Asian economies. The current superior performance of the U.S. economy should not be taken for granted.
The Political Context
Science and technology policy debates of the mid 1990s have focused on two issues. The first is the appropriate federal government role in funding science and technology specifically aimed at enhancing economic performance; disagreement over this role has been reflected in heated partisan debate about the Department of Commerce Advanced Technology Program and other specific initiatives. The second is whether the United States possesses a post-Cold War rationale to justify high levels of investment in science and technology as a national priority.
Those issues are still important and received a great deal of attention in the forum. However, the political context surrounding the discussion has shifted considerably in a short time. A key contributor has been the unexpected, rapid progress toward eliminating the federal budget deficit. The favorable budget environment appears to have dulled the partisan edge of debate over some science and technology issues. At the same time, a more bipartisan spirit on the issues is emerging in Congress, where groups in the House and the Senate are seeking to capitalize on current trends and to ensure that the federal government increases long-term investments in science and technology.
A key task for the scientific and engineering community is to develop a vision of how science and technology can best meet the nation's future economic needs and to effectively articulate this vision to political leaders and the broader public. The science and engineering enterprise itself is a key component of the national economy. Strong public funding support can no longer be considered an entitlement, if it ever was. The current economic and political environment provides an excellent opportunity for the nation to take stock of what we have learned from the past decade and a half of responding to global competitive challenges in science- and technology-based industries, while looking to the future.
To be sure, other groups within and outside the NRC, National Academy Sciences, and National Academy of Engineering have recognized the importance of these issues and are making contributions.2 The Council on Competitiveness and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), for example, convened an innovation summit not long after the forum event.3 Groups in the Senate and House of Representatives also are studying options for the future of science and technology policy.4
The steering committee expects that the forum and this report will contribute to the debate by identifying key challenges that need to be met if growth is to be sustained into the first decades of the next century and by outlining suggested new approaches that take account of the roles and capabilities of various participants in the U.S. research and innovation enterprise, including government at the federal, state, and local levels, universities and research institutes, labor, and industry.
But perhaps of equal importance is communicating the message that the time for future study and debate is limited. The time for action is at hand. With the advent of the new millennium, no more appropriate starting point could be envisioned.