Forum – Winter 2009
Budget doubling defended
Richard Freeman and John Van Reenen (“Be Careful What You Wish For: A Cautionary Tale about Budget Doubling,” Issues, Fall 2008) provided a thought-provoking analysis of the budget doubling for the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They raised an important point that we must view future research funding increases in terms of their impact on increasing educational opportunities and financial support for young researchers. However, the NIH doubling was needed because chronic underinvestment in scientific R&D created a situation in which many of our federal scientific agencies were in need of significant short-term increases in funding. We must learn to avoid the complacency that led to the current funding deficiencies. Unfortunately, the flat-funding of NIH since the doubling ended has effectively caused their budget to decline by 13% due to inflation, creating a whipsaw effect after a decade of growth. Research policy is long-term, and we must commit to a sustainable funding model for federal science agencies.
A dramatic increase in the NIH budget was necessary, but focusing on a single agency ignored the interconnectedness of the scientific endeavor. Much of the innovative instrumentation, meth od ology, and workforce needed for advancing biomedical research come through programs funded by the National Science Foundation and other agencies. For instance, the principles underlying magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) were first discovered by physicists and further refined by physicists and chemists; MRI is now a fundamental imaging tool for medical care. From MRI to laser surgery, biomedical advances often rely on knowledge and tools generated by other scientific fields. The recognition of these interconnections drove the passage of the America COMPETES Act, a law that I was proud to support, which authorized balancing the national research portfolio by improving funding for physical sciences and engineering.
The current economic situation has constricted our financial resources. However, a sustained investment in science and our scientific workforce will contribute to our nation’s long-term economic growth and ensure a stronger economy in the future.
Innovating for innovation
In “Creating a National Innovation Foundation” (Issues, Fall 2008), Robert Atkinson and Howard Wial make a compelling case for public policies that address how research discoveries become innovations, creating economic activity, jobs, and new capabilities. This line of discussion is too often ignored when the case for public support for science is made. The transition from research to innovation to commercial success is far from automatic. That is why this process is called crossing a “valley of death.”
The United States has indeed been losing ground in the race for global leadership in high-tech innovation. The question is not whether we need a national innovation policy but how it should be constructed. The authors propose a new federal entity called the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) that would include the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST’s) Technology Innovation Program, the Department of Labor’s WIRED program, and perhaps the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) innovation programs. This is a substantial challenge for three reasons. First, the history of solving deficiencies in government capability and priority by creating yet another box in the government organization chart takes years, is fraught with failures, and always arouses strong opposition in Congress. Second, as the authors point out, conservatives in Congress are on record as opposing even modest forms of the NIF idea; witness their determination (successful in 2007) to zero out the budget of NIST’s Advanced Technology Program. Third, removing existing programs from their current homes and assembling them into a new agency is more often a way to kill their effectiveness than to enhance it, witness the problems of the Department of Homeland Security.
Even if the skepticism of conservatives about a government role in private markets was not a problem, the scope of issues any unified technology policy agency must encompass is too broad to be brought together in one place. For example, it must embrace not only technology issues but tax, trade, intellectual property, securities regulation, and antitrust policies as well.
How then might a much stronger and better coordinated federal focus on innovation be established in a new administration more convinced of the need for it?
Atkinson and Wial suggest several alternative forms for their NIF. It could be part of the Department of Commerce, a government-related nonprofit organization, an independent agency (such as NSF), or an arm of the Office of the President. Because NIF would be an operating agency, it cannot be in the Executive Office of the President.
I would suggest a more modest approach, built on a greatly strengthened Technology Administration in the Department of Commerce. (It, too, was recently abolished by the Bush administration.) If it was restored (no new legislation is needed) and a secretary of commerce qualified to lead the restoration of an innovation-intensive economy was appointed, NIST could remain a core and important capability for the NIF function. Both the technical and economic dimensions of a NIF are well within the existing authority of Commerce. The Office of Science and Technology Policy should be responsible for helping the president to integrate all the key functions of an innovation policy, including the major technology departments and agencies. Thus, although it would not be as glamorous as a new agency, it could be created quickly, with only marginal need for amendments to current legislation.
Atkinson and Wial do more than worry. They propose a timely set of policies and a new National Innovation Foundation (NIF). They start by praising and urging full funding for the America Competes Act but also call for a more expansive focus on the entire innovation system, from R&D to the introduction of new commercial products, processes, and services.
Their NIF would be designed to take policy several steps farther by bringing coherence to separate innovation-related federal programs, providing support for state-based and regional initiatives, and strengthening efforts to diffuse as well as develop ideas. Atkinson and Wial urge specific funding to promote collaboration among firms, research institutions, and universities.
They provide enough detail to give the reader a good sense of how the NIF could function, but remain agnostic about where it might best fit in a new administration.
Their proposal opens several doors for action:
Fully fund the America Competes
Act. Congress should fully fund the America Competes Act when it turns again to consideration of the fiscal year 2009 budget.
Think systems. The country needs to think about the innovation system as a whole and develop an innovation strategy to build on it. I particularly liked their call for an annual Innovation Report similar to the annual Economic Report of the President. In that same spirit, I would call on the president to make an Annual State of American Innovation address and require a quadrennial articulation (just as the military does) of the nation’s innovation strategy.
Increase support for current innovation programs. We should broaden and increase funding for the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Manufacturing Extension Program, the Technology Innovation Program, and similar innovation-related programs. Whether or not the new administration establishes a new institution, Congress should establish programs to support state and regional innovation initiatives as well as collaborative ventures.
Start institutional change. Make one of the associate directors in the Office of Science and Technology Policy responsible for innovation policy. Restore and update the Office of Technology Assessment in Congress with a specific mandate to consider the innovation system.
Looking ahead to 2009, as we respond to the financial crisis and expected recession, we need to think about the impact of new policies on our innovation system—the long-term driver of higher wages, the foundation for economic strength, and a key element in national security. Too often, innovation, and the national system that supports it, is not even an afterthought, let alone a forethought.
Kent Hughes is the author of Building the Next American Century: The Past and Future of American Economic Competitiveness (Wilson Center Press, 2005).
Better environmental treaties
Lawrence Susskind has identified some key problems with the very structure of environmental treaty formulation (“Strengthening the Global Environmental Treaty System,” Issues, Fall 2008). Some of the remedies he proposes are, however, already taking place but attaining mixed results. For example, one of the solutions presented is the involvement of civil society groups as part of the treaty-making process. This is already happening with many environmental agreements, because civil society groups play an essential role at most Conferences of the Parties where treaty implementation is worked out.
Secretariats of environmental agreements such as the Ramsar Convention on Wetland Protection are housed at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, which boasts over 700 national nongovernmental organizations as its members. Hence, even if voting rights remain with nation-states, civil society groups have considerable influence through such organizational channels. What often happens is that many of these civil society groups are co-opted by the protracted treaty process as well and are thus not as effective as one may expect them to be.
There are also two seemingly contradictory trends in the politics of international treaties. On the one hand, nationalism is gaining strength along linguistic and religio-cultural divides, as exemplified by the emergence of new states within the past few years such as East Timor and Kosovo. On the other hand, the legitimacy of national jurisdiction is gently being eroded by institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Criminal Court.
In this regard, Susskind’s critique is most valid regarding the asymmetry of action caused by powerful recalcitrant states and the delinking of environmental issues from security imperatives. Within the United Nations (UN) system, the only institution with a clear mandate for international regulatory action is the Security Council. However, seldom are environmental issues brought to its attention as a cause for intervention. The inertia within the UN system to reform the structure of the Security Council filters down to all levels of international treaty-making.
The economic power of certain nation-states such as India and Brazil is beginning to provide an antidote to the hegemony of the old guard in the Security Council, as exemplified by the recent failure of the Doha round of trade negotiations. Yet environmental negotiations are still largely decoupled from these more powerful international negotiation forums and are thus not affected by this new locus of influence.
As Susskind notes, the role of science in international treaties can often be diluted by the need to have global representation, as exemplified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, such pluralism is essential despite its drawbacks of diminishing purely meritocratic research output in order to gain acceptance across all member states.
There are some efforts to reconcile the contradictory trends in environmental policymaking that are beginning to emerge and where Susskind’s concerns may have already been adequately addressed. The European Union’s environmental laws exemplify a process by which national sovereignty can be recognized at a fundamental level while acknowledging ecological salience across states with large economic inequalities. Ultimately, if we are to have an efficacious environmental treaty system, a similar approach with clear targets and penalties for noncompliance will be needed to ensure that policy responses can keep up with ecological impact.
Susskind’s suggestions focus on specific ways in which the environmental treaty-making system can be improved without requiring major changes to basic structures of international law and cooperation. Some may criticize this approach as being too modest given the severity of the environmental challenges we face, but it has the advantage of being more realistic in the short to medium term than any call for fundamentally altering the roles and responsibilities of international organizations and states in international lawmaking and implementation of environmental treaties.
Of Susskind’s many constructive proposals, a few stand out as being both important and relatively achievable. These include setting more explicit targets and timetables for mitigation, establishing more comprehensive and authoritative mechanisms for monitoring and enforcement, and developing new structures for formulating scientific advice. None of these issues are unproblematic—if they were easy, they would already have been addressed—but discussions around several of them are advancing under multiple environmental treaties (albeit painstakingly slowly).
At the heart of many difficult discussions lies the fact that states remain reluctant to surrender sovereignty and decisionmaking rights under environmental treaties. This draws attention to the importance of norms and principles guiding collective behavior. Susskind touches on this in his discussion about the United States’ rejection of the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities intended to aid industrialized and developing countries to move forward on specific issues while recognizing that there are fundamental differences between them in terms of their ability to lead and act.
Political science and negotiations analysis tell us that a shared understanding of the cause, scope, and severity of a problem is critical for successful communal problem-solving involving the redistribution of costs and benefits. It is unlikely that global environmental governance will be significantly improved until there is a much greater acceptance among leading industrialized and developing countries about the characters and drivers of environmental problems and shared norms and principles for how they are best addressed (including the generation of funds for mitigation and adaptation).
In other words, many of the practical suggestions for improving global governance put forward by Susskind should be debated and pursued across issue areas, because they would help us address specific environmental problems more effectively. At the same time, the magnitude of collective change ultimately needed to tackle the deepening environmental crisis is unlikely to come about without more widespread global acceptance of common norms and principles guiding political and economic action and policymaking.
Managing military reform
In “Restructuring the Military” (Issues, Fall 2008), Lawrence J. Korb and Max A. Bergmann call the Pentagon “the world’s largest bureaucracy,” implying that it can be managed much like other very large organizations. They then go on to discuss policies that they believe should be put in place, skirting the question of how such policies would be received in the many semiautonomous centers of power within the Department of Defense (DOD), which in reality is more a loose confederation of tribes than a bureaucracy. “Bureaucracy,” after all, signifies hierarchy. Well-defined hierarchies do exist within the DOD, but they are found within the four services and the civilian employees who answer ultimately to the Secretary of Defense. Otherwise, lines of authority are ambiguous and contested, more so than in any other part of our famously fragmented government. To considerable extent, policy in the DOD is what happens, not what is supposed to happen.
Each of the services has its own vision of warfighting. Before World War II, this made little difference. Since then it has, and the stark contrast between chains of command within the services and the tangled arrangements for coordination among them affect almost everything the DOD attempts. Civilians find it hard simply to discern, much less unravel, conflicts within and among the services from which decisions and priorities emerge concerning, for example, acquisition (R&D and procurement), and if civilian decisionmakers cannot understand what is going on, except grossly, they cannot exert much influence over outcomes.
Korb and Bergmann laud the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols reforms for enhancing “coordination” and “cohesion” and call for extension of this “model” to the “the broader bureaucracy that oversees the nation’s warfighting, diplomatic, and aid agencies.” That seems wishful thinking. Indeed, many of the examples they adduce suggest that Goldwater-Nichols changed relatively little. As I argue in Trillions for Military
Technology: How the Pentagon Innovates and Why It Costs So Much, many of the difficulties so evident in acquisition can be traced as far back as World War I. Why, after all, is it that “soldiers in an Army vehicle have been unable to communicate with Marines in a vehicle just yards away” when such problems have existed literally since the invention of radio?
As president, Dwight Eisenhower, uniquely able to see inside the Pentagon, exerted personal oversight over many aspects of military policy. Other presidents have had to rely on their defense secretaries. A few of those, notably Robert McNamara, tried actively to manage the Pentagon. Unfortunately, the organizational learning that began under McNamara was tarred by his part in the Vietnam debacle, and too many of his successors, such as Caspar Weinberg, were content to be figureheads. As a result, and notwithstanding Goldwater-Nichols, the services have nearly as much autonomy today as in the past.
The reasons should not be misunderstood. They stem from professionalism. The aversion of military leaders to civilian “interference” is little different from the aversion of physicians to being told how to practice medicine. The difference is that as consumers we can always switch physicians, whereas military force is not, and let us hope never will be, a commodity that can be purchased in the global marketplace.
It may be that Korb and Bergmann hope that calling for the armed forces to cooperate more effectively with other parts of the government will, if enough money is forthcoming, lead to real change. Any review of the relationship between the DOD and the State Department and Atomic Energy Commission after World War II would indicate how forlorn such a hope must be. Reform must start inside the service hierarchies. That is a precondition for the sorts of steps Korb and Bergmann recommend.
Not just for kids
Brian Bosworth’s assessment in “The Crisis in Adult Education” (Issues, Summer 2008) is right on target. At a time when our country faces unparalleled economic uncertainty and unprecedented competition, the United States must dramatically increase the number of individuals with postsecondary credentials and college-level skills if we are to maintain our economy’s vitality. We agree with Bosworth that strong state and federal policies can help millions of adult learners reap the benefits of innovative approaches to improving postsecondary learning and adult skill development.
For 25 years, Jobs for the Future and its partners have been at the forefront of innovations in education for low-income and low-skill Americans. We work side by side with practitioners and policymakers in 159 communities in 36 states in programs that provide evidence for the importance of Bosworth’s proposals and models for their application on the ground. In Oregon, for example, Portland Community College offers a wide range of services specifically designed to meet the needs of academically unprepared adult students. As a participant in the 18-state Breaking Through initiative, a collaboration of Jobs for the Future and the National Council for Workforce Education, the college is redesigning developmental education programs to serve as a bridge between adult basic education and credit-bearing courses. Adult students who very likely struggled in high school or didn’t receive a diploma at all are provided with mentors, tutors, and other supports that help them navigate the complex and often intimidating college environment to shore up their academic achievement. The result: More students are staying in school and working toward the credentials they need to succeed.
Portland Community College is aided in these efforts through Oregon state policy, which encourages enrollment in both adult basic education and developmental education programs as paths to better jobs. One way state policy does this is by providing a match of 80% of the roughly $5.6 million the federal government has invested in Oregon’s adult basic education program. Oregon also reimburses colleges at the same per-student rate for adult basic education, developmental education, and credit-level students. This uniform rate raises the academic standing of adult basic education and indicates that it is just as important as other programs.
In Maryland, Community College of Baltimore County is giving occupational training to frontline entry-level workers in health care—not in classrooms but right at the hospitals where they work. Workers do not have to commute and pay little to no cost for their training and college credit. The program is part of Jobs to Careers, a $15.8 million national initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in collaboration with The Hitachi Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor. A national initiative with 17 sites, Jobs to Careers uses a “work-based learning” model. It embeds learning into workers’ day-to-day tasks, learning that is developed and taught by both employers and the educational institution. This way, employees can move up career ladders, employers benefit from higher retention rates, patients receive better care, and the college has a new way to deliver its services and strengthen its local economy. Bringing college to the work site is not only a groundbreaking strategy; it’s a common-sense solution to the skills gap affecting local economies across the country. Jobs to Careers is matching the jobs that need to be done with the individuals who need them most.
Innovative and cost-effective investments in a skilled workforce are key to keeping high-paying jobs in America. These human capital investments, particularly for low-skill and low-income youth and adults, address two pressing national challenges: greater equity and stronger economic performance. Our thanks to Bosworth for putting a spotlight on these issues.
Gerald Hane has a valuable piece in the Fall 2008 Issues (“Science, Technology and Global Reengagement”) arguing that the new administration must recognize the critical role of science and technology (S&T) in the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy and that that role must be reflected in the structure of the White House and State Department. It is not a new argument but one that has bedeviled many administrations and many Secretaries of State, with results that have varied but almost always have fallen short of what is needed. Today, it is of even greater importance as the consequences of inadequate response become steadily more damaging in light of the rapid upgrading of scientific and technological competence throughout the world and the emergence of global-scale S&T–rich issues as major elements of foreign affairs. The threat to America’s competitive economic position as well as its national security is real and growing.
Hane asserts the critical importance of the new president’s having in his immediate entourage a science adviser able to participate in formulating policy to deal with the flood of these issues. He calls for an upgrading of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and for the director of that office to also be a deputy assistant to the president for science, technology, and global affairs. Whatever the title, he is quite right that it is not enough only to be at the table; the science adviser must have the clout and the personal drive to frame the discussion and influence decisions. In this setting, the power that comes from proximity to the president is essential in order to be able to cut through often contentious agency debates and congressional opposition.
But Hane’s arguments, absolutely sound, arrive in the new president’s inbox along with those of many others, all clamoring for immediate attention to their needs. In this maelstrom, it is all too possible that science will be seen as just another self-pleading interest.
What the result will be depends on whether the new president believes in and understands the need for this kind of close scientific advice, asserts the leadership required to create the necessary White House climate, and is prepared to include a senior science adviser in White House policy deliberations across a wide swath of subjects. During his campaign, President-elect Barack Obama reflected the intention to deal urgently with science-rich international issues such as climate change and has signaled that he will appoint an individual to oversee technology implementation across government agencies. Early in his campaign, he formed a science advisory committee, led by a successful science administrator and Nobel Laureate, Harold Varmus, which apparently was in communication almost daily with the campaign’s policy leaders. Thus, there is reason to hope that Obama does appreciate well why many of the policies he is most concerned about will require scientists of quality to be centrally involved in the many policy choices he will have to make.
Hane knows from his years of tending the international portfolio at the Office of Science and Technology Policy that his ambitious vision for an enhanced role for science and technology can be realized only with the president’s direct involvement.Thus, he recommends that the president establish the position of deputy assistant to the president for science, technology, and global affairs and make his science advisor a member of the National Security Council and the National Economic Council.
The president could implement these suggestions immediately. It would be consistent with the new administration’s expressed desire to pay more attention to the soft power dimensions of U.S. foreign policy, and that is where science cooperation can play an especially fruitful role—if there is adequate funding.
Earlier attempts to find funding for cooperative international science projects fell short. In the Carter administration a proposal to establish an Institute for Scientific and Technological Cooperation (ISTC) for this purpose made it through three of the four mandatory wickets in Congress before it failed for lack of appropriations in the Senate. That or a similar federal approach could be tried again.
One thorny question is where to house the effort. The ISTC was intended to be a semi-autonomous body inside the U.S. Agency for International Development. Another option would be the State Department, but Congress is not readily inclined to support science projects through State, even though precedents exist in the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) programs (funded as a nonproliferation measure) and the Support for Eastern European Democracy Act to assist with economic recovery after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
The activity could also be managed through an existing private organization or a nongovernmental organization created specifically for this purpose. For example, the Civilian Research and Development Foundation was created for similar work as part of the CTR initiative and could be expanded to fulfill this larger role. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, which has just created a Center for Science Diplomacy, also has the prestige and the commitment to take on this responsibility.
Other than the government, the only sources of funding would be private foundations. However, such funding would likely be limited in scope and duration. Federal support is clearly the preferred route, though it could be complemented by private sources. One could even conceive of something modeled on the Small Business Innovation Research program, whereby the technical agencies would be encouraged or required to spend a certain percent of their total scientific funding on projects with an international dimension.
To doubters this may sound like more international charity, but the reality is that as scientific capability and research excellence continue to develop abroad, it is certain that the United States can reap great scientific and political benefits from these relationships. The potential for such a double return on these investments in cooperation is very large. It is a concept whose time has surely come and that deserves a serious attempt to make it work.
Science and engineering interact with foreign policy in two very distinct ways. The first (and easy one) relates to policies that bring international partners together to do science or to provide a policy framework for international cooperation in research. This is perhaps best seen in successful “big science” projects where remarkable international partnerships have been established in diverse fields such as high-energy physics and global change. Permanent or semipermanent international cooperation institutions have been established, some governmental and some nongovernmental.
The second is more difficult and complex: the role of science and engineering in the development and implementation of foreign policy. Forward thinking is difficult, especially in a government bureaucracy. But there have been thoughtful efforts to reorganize the U.S. government (especially the Department of State) to better inject S&T into the foreign policy process. The most successful of these (at least institutionally) probably was P.L. 95-126, the fiscal year 1979 authorization for the State Department. With the strong backing of Congress, it included new high-level positions, reporting requirements, and mandatory agency cooperation. It appeared to be the do-all and end-all for science and diplomacy. The only problem was that under both parties it was mostly ignored by the federal agencies and the White House. Even today the federal government lacks an agency with funding and a personnel system that will support a world-class analytic capability in science and foreign policy.
The current (fall 2008) global financial crisis underscores the crucial role science plays in international relations. Fundamentally the creation of scientists and mathematicians, the complex financial instruments at the root of the problem were not understood by the financial community. This state of affairs has resulted in unintended consequences, in which the U.S. financial system has become more like the Chinese system, reversing a multidecade flow in the opposite direction.
S&T solutions are needed to address many of today’s global challenges—in energy, food security, public health, and environmental protection. The United States cannot tackle these challenges alone. Today’s most vexing problems are global in nature and require global expertise and experience to solve. Many nations, such as Saudi Arabia, China, the United Kingdom, India, and Australia, are investing in science infrastructure and are partnering globally to advance their own competitiveness and national security interests. To remain competitive, the United States must demonstrate leadership in engaging the world’s best scientists and engineers to find common solutions through collaborative research activities. This is good for U.S. science because it gives our scientists and engineers access to unique facilities and research sites and exposes them to new approaches. It is economically sound because it leverages U.S. resources and provides a means to benchmark U.S. capabilities. As a diplomatic tool, we know that scientists and engineers can work together in ways that transcend cultural and political differences. International collaboration helps to build relationships of trust and establish pathways of communication and collaboration even when formal government connections are strained. In short, S&T must be a central component of U.S. foreign policy.
Hane is correct to note that making progress in these areas requires new policy approaches and resources that spur government agencies and non-governmental organizations to take action. During congressional testimony this past summer, the U.S. Civilian Research & Development Foundation (CRDF), a nongovernmental organization created by Congress that supports international science collaboration with more than 30 countries, called on the U.S. government to launch a strategic global initiative to catalyze and amplify S&T cooperation for the benefit of the United States and its partners around the world. The Global Science Fund would be a public/private partnership, with the U.S. government taking the lead in challenging private donors and other governments to match the U.S. contribution. This new initiative would provide funding for grants and other activities that would engage scientists internationally to address energy alternatives, food security, vanishing ecosystems, or other global challenges. It would seek to reach young scientists and support a robust R&D infrastructure while building mutually beneficial economic partnerships.
The new U.S. administration will face many challenges. Advancing U.S. economic, security, and diplomatic interests by drawing on one of America’s greatest assets—its scientists and engineers—must be one of them.
In “Third-Generation Biotechnology: A First Look” (Issues, Fall 2008), Mark Sagoff raises a number of useful and interesting points regarding ethical, legal, and social concerns about third-generation biotechnology. In my view, however, some of his criticisms of regulatory agencies, particularly the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), are somewhat overstated. It is certainly arguable that we lack a truly coherent regulatory framework for genetically engineered organisms in the United States, with responsibility for regulation and registration divided somewhat arbitrarily among different agencies (the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, and the USDA). Even within the latter agency, the Biotechnology Regulatory Service that Sagoff references is part of APHIS, a regulatory branch that is distinct from the more research-focused (and research-funding) Agricultural Research Service. But rather than “systematically” avoiding sponsorship of inquiry into the ethical, legal, and social implications of biotechnology, I would suggest that the USDA and the other agencies have struggled gamely with a fairly miniscule amount of funding that must be apportioned among extensive regulatory and research needs. It is hardly surprising that the USDA’s priority for limited funds has been for ecologically based research rather than social or ethical inquiries, given the agency’s mission and expertise.
The comparison with the National Institutes of Health‘s efforts to foster public acceptance of the Human Genome Project is valid, but should be tempered with an understanding of the disparity in funding for these programs. I would also suggest that obtaining public acceptance of the need to unravel the human genome, with its very demonstrable medical implications, is probably easier than fostering an informed democratic debate about the ecology of genetically engineered microorganisms in the environment. Sagoff provides several excellent examples illustrating one reason why this is so: The scientific research community has the ability to engineer and release some truly scary recombinant organisms into the environment, such as entomopathogenic fungi expressing scorpion toxin or animal viruses engineered for immunosuppressive capabilities.
Sagoff is correct that the old “process/product” distinction, which has been plaguing regulators for more than two decades, remains a conundrum. The question of how much we should focus on the process of genetic engineering versus the resulting products has been a recurrent theme in both regulatory and academic discussions about the potential release of genetically modified organisms. To a large extent, the dichotomy is a misleading one. The process of genetic engineering inherently produces non-native variants of organisms, and I would contend that there is merit in evaluating the environmental introduction of these organisms with scrutiny similar to that used for the introduction of wild-type non-native microbes. Although a particular recombinant “product” may be well characterized in terms of its genotype as well as a variety of phenotypical attributes, the new ecological niche (also a “product”) that it will fill is always a matter for prediction. Enhanced scrutiny of new introductions based on process (that is, based on their recombinant nature) is admittedly a blunt tool, analogous in some ways to the passenger profiling that might take place at an airline check-in counter. But we don’t afford microbes any equal protection rights, and we might just manage to ward off a few bad actors.
I support the policy direction proposed by Robert Hunt and Brian Kahin in “Reexamining the Patent System” (Issues, Fall 2008), but does their analysis go far enough? Arguably, innovation is as important to the long-run health of the economy as are interest rates. To set interest rates, our country has the autonomous institution of the Federal Reserve, which excels at gathering and analyzing data in support of its financial decisions. An institution with a similar data-driven orientation for the patent system only seems logical.
The kind of data that Hunt and Kahin talk about gathering would, as they propose, help us evaluate the performance of the patent system in different technologies and industries. However, I think such data are important for another reason (perhaps Hunt and Kahin had this in mind): They can guide the refinement of patent institutions. Indeed, some of the most successful applications of economic analysis to policymaking, such as the programs for tradable pollution permits, began with extensive data analysis, but then applied this analysis to improving the structure and effectiveness of these programs. Similarly, extensive patent data and economic analysis can help improve the functioning of the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) and of the courts by providing crucial feedback. How well do PTO programs to improve patent quality work? What fee structures can improve patent quality, reduce litigation, and also reduce the huge PTO backlog? Do certain court decisions increase the uncertainty of the patent grant, as some have charged, or not?
These questions can be answered and the answers can be used to improve patent performance. The patent system is, after all, an unusual beast; it is a set of legal institutions charged with carrying out an economic policy. But until now, the tools of economic analysis and economic policymaking have been missing.
Yes to an RPS
“A National Renewable Portfolio Standard? Not Practical” (Issues, Fall 2008), by Jay Apt, Lester B. Lave, and Sompop Pattanariyankool, correctly asserts that the United States needs a comprehensive strategy to address climate change and that energy efficiency is a critical component. But the rest of the article, which maintains that a national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) is impractical, is off the mark.
First, numerous studies contradict the authors’ claim that a national RPS would be too expensive for ratepayers. More than 20 comprehensive economic analyses completed during the past decade found that a strong national standard is achievable and affordable. For example, a 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) study, using the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA’s) national energy modeling system, found that establishing a 15% national RPS by 2020 would lower electricity and natural gas bills in all 50 states by reducing demand for fossil fuels and increasing competition. Cumulative national savings would reach $28 billion to $32 billion by 2030. An EIA study arrived at similar conclusions despite its more pessimistic assumptions about renewable technologies. That study projected that a 25% RPS by 2025 would slightly lower natural gas bills, more than off-setting slightly higher (0.4%) electricity bills, saving consumers $2 billion cumulatively through 2030.
Second, the authors incorrectly allege that a national RPS would undermine U.S. electricity system reliability by increasing reliance on wind and solar power. EIA and UCS analyses project that base load technologies, such as biomass, geothermal, landfill gas, and incremental hydroelectric plants, would generate 33 to 66% of the renewable electricity under a national standard. Regional electricity systems could easily integrate the remaining power produced by wind and solar at a very modest cost and without storage. Studies by U.S. and European utilities have found that wind penetrations of as much as 25% would add no more than $5 per megawatt-hour in grid integration costs, or less than 10%, to the wholesale cost of wind.
Third, the need for new transmission lines and upgrades to deliver power to urban areas is not unique to renewable energy. Additional capacity would be necessary for many proposed coal and nuclear plants, which are often sited at considerable distances from load centers. A 2007 analysis by Black & Veatch, a leading power plant engineering firm, found that 142 new coal unit proposals at 116 plants were located on average 109 miles from the nearest large U.S. city, with some located 400 to 500 miles away.
For these reasons and others, we disagree with the conclusion that a national RPS would be ineffective in reducing global warming emissions and meeting other national goals. In fact, EIA’s study showed that a 25% national RPS could reduce global warming emissions from coal and natural gas plants by 20% below business as usual by 2025. Because scientists have called on the United States to reduce global warming emissions by at least 80% below current levels by 2050, we need to dramatically increase both efficiency and renewable energy use. Therefore, efficiency measures and RPSs are key complements to federal cap-and-trade legislation.