The View from California

The state is a science and technology trailblazer but a laggard in managing the related policy dimension.

If what is happening in California is a leading indicator, and it usually is, many critical science and technology (S&T) policy debates are migrating from Washington to state capitals and even to local polling places. Unfortunately, the procedural, institutional, and human capacity for informed policymaking at these levels is often not as well developed as it is at the national level, which can result in confusing, contradictory, and short-sighted policy outcomes. Therefore, some attention to the health and functioning of non-national political processes and institutions, especially in California, is warranted.

Although federal dollars will always keep a good number of S&T policy decisions in Washington, state and local government leaders will increasingly be called on to guide us through many tough public conversations. As the state with its face to the future and its home on the technological frontier, California will likely have considerable influence on the direction and scope of the local, national, and even global public response to innovation. The state’s leadership position in R&D—first among the states in federal, industry, and total R&D funding— means that new technology products and processes, and the concurrent social upheaval that inevitably comes with them, will likely happen here first.

S&T policymaking is already a staple of the California government’s diet. Over the past decade, state lawmakers introduced an average of 270 bills per session (about 12 percent of all legislation) with some science or technology angle. California has also helped push the national envelope on issues such as financial privacy and identity theft. This year, Sacramento will decide whether to use the Global Positioning System to track criminals, whether to make peer-to-peer software makers liable for the illegal uses of their technology, and whether to stop Internet service providers from scanning the content of their subscribers’ e-mail messages.

California’s citizens are in the act as well. Although the 2004 statewide stem cell proposition dominated national headlines, there is also plenty of policymaking at the local level. For example, opponents of genetically modified (GM) products have been using a series of county-level ballot initiatives to institute what could eventually become a de facto statewide ban on GM foods, crops, and animals. Voters in Mendocino and Marin counties passed bans on GM products last year, and another dozen counties could be considering similar measures in the next few years.

California’s solutions to the public challenges posed by S&T will inevitably shape overall policy trends, possibly for centuries to come. The economic and legal impact of these measures will certainly not stop at the state border, which is why even those who live and work outside the state should be watching it carefully.

What’s at stake?

California’s S&T-based economic leadership is renowned. These industries contribute $159.7 billion to the gross state product and employ 1.29 million people in the state. Less widely known are the factors that drive the California’s high-tech engine: the relative availability of funding for research and startup companies, the state’s education system and well-educated workforce, and the effects of industry clustering. Nearly all these inputs can be advanced or hindered by government policy, and some, such as research funding for state universities and the state education system, are directly attributable to policy and spending decisions made by state officials. Unenlightened thinking on the part of state leaders, especially as it relates to the research and education budget, could result in short-term solutions that ultimately jeopardize the state’s long-term prosperity.

In addition to the economic and investment policy questions that state leaders must grapple with, there are some very dark clouds building at the nexus of environment, social issues, and S&T advances in California. Public backlash against emerging technologies, as seen in the county-level movement to ban GM products and the several small local skirmishes over nanotechnology, remains as constant a factor as ever. And given the historic tendency for deep political polarization over some S&T advances and the pervasiveness and convergence of new technologies, the likelihood of numerous small fights breaking out all over the state is almost inevitable. If state leaders do not handle these clashes wisely while there is still time to make minor, relatively painless course corrections, they could grow into vast, intractable, and expensive battles.

One would think that California would have every reason to do it right, to have the most advanced public institutions and the very best decision support for S&T policy. The state sets global policy trends, it has an economy and state budget that depend on high-tech industries, and very few politicians actually like being torn between warring religious, business, and environmental constituencies. Yet the state’s S&T governance structures serve best as a model of what not to do.

Even though California is a global leader in S&T innovation, the related policy figures relatively low on state government’s priority list. California spent the past five years gutting and then demolishing entirely the Division of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) at the now closed state Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency. DSTI was the only state government unit charged with a broad mandate to track, support, inform, and provide coherence to state S&T policy. Though still a fledgling entity when it was axed, DSTI guided initiatives in biomass, next-generation Internet, rural e-commerce, high-tech manufacturing, and aerospace, among others.

Most important, DSTI served as an advocate for S&T policy within the executive branch, a function that is now nearly lost. This loss has been clearly felt in the relatively narrow agenda of California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The governor’s S&T priorities have been limited almost entirely to hydrogen fuels and stem cells. When compared to the governors of other states, such as Michigan’s Jennifer Granholm and Ohio’s Bob Taft, or even to his predecessor, Gray Davis, Schwarzenegger meets only the bare minimum for vision and thoughtfulness in state S&T policy.

The state’s continual budget problems have undermined other tech-critical programs and policies. The state-funded research budget for the University of California was cut for three successive budget years by 10, 10, and 5 percent. Even more troubling, California now ranks 21st in per-capita university-based R&D in engineering, down from 12th five years ago. University-based research in engineering was a critical component of California’s technology leadership in the latter half of the 20th century.

The legislature

For its part, the state legislature, which would be the most appropriate platform for public discourse on the implications of S&T, is unmatched to the task. S&T policy often requires sustained attention over long periods, yet California’s term-limits law shortened average service time from more than eight years to less than three years. Too many legislators leave just as they become conversant with complex S&T issues, and there is no formal mechanism for mentoring or training new members to help them get up to speed quickly. S&T policy-making in California now depends almost entirely on the random attentions of a rapidly churning body of members.

Further, unlike the 17 other states with some form of dedicated standing committee on S&T policy, California’s legislature shuttles S&T-related bills through multiple standing committees with multiple jurisdictions and competing priorities. On the surface, it might seem admirable that the legislature has incorporated S&T concerns so well into its process that there is no need for a specialized S&T committee. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Bills with specific S&T implications receive some analysis during the standing committee process, but they typically do not receive the formal or expert assessment that they often require.

Even on those occasions when a standing committee chair is personally interested in devoting adequate attention to S&T complexities, term limits make sustained attention impossible. As in the legislature as a whole, the average service time of committee chairs has dropped precipitously from roughly 10 years to less than 3 years.

And although some California legislators will jockey for positions on tech-centered study committees, they do so at a high cost in political capital for a questionable policy gain. Although these study committees do examine issues closely, as a rule they are created in reaction to already well-known issues such as privacy or genetics, their jurisdictions are narrowly defined, their power is limited, their reports often gather dust, and they invariably sunset after the lead legislator terms out.

Finally, other than the authoring of bills, which brings media attention, campaign contributions, and constituent approval, the legislative process for S&T policy in California offers few routine institutional rewards for members who are willing to engage tough long-term issues. In other policy areas, such as health or education, legislators who assume leadership are rewarded with signs of power, such as a committee chairmanship, a higher media profile, and a cadre of well-trained staff. Without such benefits and within the context of California’s inefficient, ad hoc S&T policy process and term-limited environment, few state legislators are willing, or even capable, of tackling California’s most challenging issues.

Without supportive institutions in place in the state government, tough policy decisions might increasingly fall to the least nuanced means of policymaking: the ballot initiative. Complex issues such as GM foods and stem cell research are not suited to up or down votes. There are too many trade-offs to balance and consider. Stem cell voters, for example, were not offered the chance to determine whether they would rather spend their $3 billion investment on alternative energy research or green technology, industries that, like stem cell research, also have the potential to profoundly improve lives. Neither were voters asked if they might be willing to increase taxes to pay for the investment, rather than to finance it with bonds, or if they would consider a larger or smaller investment. These kinds of negotiations are possible only in the legislative process.

Leaving tough S&T policy decisions to the initiative process also has a practical downside. If California counties establish a patchwork of regulations around the state, it will become increasingly difficult for researchers and businesses to figure out and abide by community norms and rules. Tech-based development will certainly slow and possibly stall out altogether.

Structural reform

The bottom line to all of this is that it is simply too easy for California policymakers to put off S&T policy as “not my concern.” California’s S&T policy failures, as well as its successes, can be blamed on everyone and no one, which makes it exceptionally difficult for voters to assign responsibility for some of the toughest and most intractable public challenges. When so much is at stake, this is simply unacceptable.

Any solutions to California’s S&T policy failures, however, must meet some basic good governance standards. First and foremost, state policymakers need the intellectual capacity to make informed decisions. They need expert advice presented in nontechnical terms, in real time, and with a clear understanding of public values, preferences, and flash points.

Second, citizens must be able to easily identify, and gain access to, elected officials who are directly and uniquely accountable for the state’s overall S&T policy. Those officials should provide a neutral public platform for safe, respectful, and thorough dialogue on controversial matters.

Third, the state must manage information more effectively. S&T policy questions are often long-term issues. Elected officials in California are ultimately short-term players. Some degree of institutional memory and a formal capacity for mentoring and transitioning leadership must be a priority. However, information is only useful when it is shared. The state needs a central router to serve as universal translator, hub, and distributor for information related to S&T policy issues within government.

Last, the best way to move S&T policy to the top of the agenda is to reward public officials for their efforts with staff, authority, and media attention.

When the Founding Fathers devised the U.S. system of government, they were painstakingly careful in devising the process of government. They knew that the system would have to work whether the people in it were smart or stupid, experienced or naive, interested or not. California could improve its S&T policy system by adopting several former and current federal S&T governance structures:

Establish standing committees on S&T in the Assembly and the Senate. Committees are the heart and soul of the legislative policymaking process. They vet programs and policies, circulate information, clear out bad ideas and champion good ones, and maintain institutional memory about the arcane details of government. Committees also serve as a platform for public discourse and negotiation, and they provide political capital to their members. In a term-limited environment, committees are the key to moving issues over the long haul.

Host a corps of volunteer scientist-fellows in state government. The California government already has a widely respected, very competitive fellows program for recent college graduates; it should follow the model of the Jefferson Science Fellows program at the U.S. Department of State by creating fellowship positions for tenured faculty from the state’s universities. These fellows would advise various policy committees and targeted programs in the executive branch on the scientific and technical aspects of their work, thereby increasing staff capacity and providing a vital assessment-support function.

Incorporate S&T literacy in new member training at the state and local levels. California state legislators receive limited policy training when they enter service. The learning curve, especially on complicated matters, is steep. Nonpartisan S&T literacy training could increase the intellectual capacity of the legislature and result in better decisionmaking. Further, since a good number of state legislators begin their public service in local government and local officials are increasingly faced with controversial S&T issues in their own right, training for gateway offices is also necessary.

Create a California Office of Technology Assessment. Modeled after the now-defunct federal Office of Technology Assessment, this agency would serve as a research, analysis, and assessment unit, as well as a platform for public testimony. With additional funding, the California Council on Science and Technology, a state-chartered but underfunded nonprofit science advisory body, could grow into this role.

Appoint a governor’s S&T counsel. Appoint a cabinet-level S&T advisor to the inner circle of the governor’s personal staff. Similar to the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy within the Executive Office of the President, the governor’s S&T counsel would champion S&T at the highest levels of the executive branch, bring unique expertise to policy development in the governor’s office, and serve as a single point of contact within the executive branch for the state’s S&T constituencies.

In the future, the battle over S&T policy will not be isolated to one field, one product, or one technology. Distinctions between scientific disciplines and engineering are disappearing, and technology is increasingly ubiquitous. Even a well-intentioned policymaker hoping to forestall a known negative outcome in one field could unwittingly set off storms of unintended consequences in others. Traditional divisions between policy areas such as health care and computing and between legal jurisdictions such as state, federal, and local government will be less meaningful. Policymakers at all government levels and in all fields are going to have to find ways to chart the brave new world now confronting them.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Barbour, Heather. “The View from California.” Issues in Science and Technology 21, no. 3 (Spring 2005).

Vol. XXI, No. 3, Spring 2005