The Ehlers Report
To be fair, one should be realistic about what can be achieved in a relatively brief overview of all U.S. science and technology (S&T) policy. When House Speaker Newt Gingrich directed the House Science Committee in February 1997 to prepare a report that would help the House “in developing a new, sensible, coherent long-range science and technology policy,” he was describing a formidable task, to say the least. Led by committee vice-chair Vernon Ehlers, the Science Committee produced by September 1998 a wide-ranging and sensible survey of the state of S&T policy-Unlocking Our Future: Toward a New National Science Policy (http://www.house.gov/ science/science_policy_study.htm).
The report immediately encountered some criticism, some of which was on target but perhaps unfair. Rep. George Brown, the ranking minority member of the committee, refused to sign the report, because he believes that it does not address the new responsibilities that should be accepted by scientists and engineers as S&T assume an ever more central role in our society and our economy. That’s true, but very few members of Congress or of the S&T community go as far as Brown in assigning responsibilities to science. Others have pointed out that the report is of limited value because it does not address defense and health, the two largest components of federal research spending. This is true, but it’s not the committee’s fault that it lacks standing in these areas; Congress assigns jurisdiction over these activities to other committees. We should not be surprised that the committee decided not to intrude on the turf of other committees.
But fairness does not preclude criticism. In those areas that the committee did address and should have had something to say, the report does not do enough to define critical questions or to look into the issues of the future. Consider the topic of commercial innovation, which is the focus of several articles in this edition of Issues. The Ehlers report recommends making the R&D tax credit permanent. That’s it. As Kenneth Whang’s article points out, permanence is only the most obvious problem. In fact, making permanent a tax credit that has so many flaws will be at best a mixed blessing.
The Ehlers report also persists in an outmoded view of what the states are doing. It assigns responsibility for basic research to the federal government and observes that the states “are far better suited to stimulating economic development through technology-based industry within their borders.” Although it’s true that this is a proper role for the states, Christopher Coburn’s survey of state research spending makes it clear that they have also become major players in this domain, collectively spending more on R&D than does the National Science Foundation. As a member of the party that is pushing more responsibility down to the state level, Ehlers should be more aware of the growing role that states are playing in S&T policy.
The Ehlers report takes pride in paying special attention to education. It examines K-12 curricula; teacher training; and undergraduate and graduate science, math, and engineering programs. The emphasis on education is admirable, but the narrow conception of what is important in education is not. The articles by Van Opstal and by Herzenberg et al. point to a more serious problem-the capabilities of the work force. The real challenge to education in this country is to meet the need for continuing education for everyone, from researchers to factory workers to retail personnel, particularly in the service sector. The focus of our education efforts should not be on elementary schools or graduate programs but on community colleges and worker training. This is where the action will be in the coming decade.
Other ideas considered in this issue never come up in the Ehlers report. Sandia’s planned technology park, which is discussed by Kenneth Brown, is never mentioned. Robert Mallet’s observations about the increasingly critical role that international standards are playing in the ability of U.S. to compete in global markets has no parallel in the report. The entire realm of antitrust policy, which, as David Hart demonstrates, has a critical role to play in the nation’s innovation system, is never discussed. An early draft of Hart’s article included a quote from Speaker Gingrich’s charge to the Science Committee: “The United States has been operating under a model developed by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 report to the president entitled Science: The Endless Frontier. It continues to operate under that model with little change.” The quote wasn’t directly relevant to Hart’s argument, but it is important to the larger topic of the Ehlers report.
Many of the cognescenti are eager to proclaim that many of Bush’s concepts, most notably the linear model of innovation, were rejected long ago. Unfortunately, Gingrich is probably closer to the truth. We are slow to let go of old concepts and ways of categorizing problems. And this is the problem with the Ehlers report. Although it claims to look to the future, it does so with the framework of the past. The articles in this issue illustrate how quickly the competitive landscape of innovation and economic competitiveness is changing, and change is every bit as fast in other aspects of S&T. This new landscape will present new problems and will require new frameworks to conceptualize these problems. The Ehlers report fails to capture how much the world has changed or to appreciate how much it will change in the near future. It’s not just that the Cold War is over. The structure of industry; the role of education; the boundaries of scientific disciplines; and the complex of relationships among business, government, and academia have all evolved rapidly. Tinkering at the margins of outdated approaches to S&T policy will not be enough. Unlocking our future will require that we first free ourselves from the past.