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October 25, 2012

Opinion: The Presidential Choice for Science and Technology

Michael Feldman

With the looming US elections just days away, it’s worth considering what effect the choice for President will have on federal science and technology policies for the next four years. While this is hardly a hot button issue in most voter’s minds, these policies will have a much bigger impact on the quality of people’s lives than the political soundbites currently being sprayed across the public airwaves.

In one way or another, most economic growth today is being driven by IT and, more generally, scientific innovation. Certainly, higher worker productivity – not always a good thing, by the way, in times of high unemployment – is strongly correlated with advancements in computer technology and the growth of knowledge-based economies. Internet commerce, cloud computing, DNA sequencing, consumer electronics, and good old-fashioned supercomputing are transforming whole industries. The big economic winners in the 21st century will go to those countries able to best foster these technologies.

The problem with dissecting a policy issue like this is that both Obama and Romney are ostensibly pro-science and technology. This issue doesn’t have the emotional touchstones and sharp divisions of something like the abortion debate. For science and technology, there is essentially no debate. Both candidates want to support these endeavors for the obvious reasons of spurring economic growth and high-tech jobs.

Notwithstanding certain Republicans’ aversion to dealing seriously with science-based topics like climate change and evolution, Romney has staked out a position closer to the mainstream. According to a set of questions posed by Scientific American and, Romney (not surprisingly) favors business-friendly policies to encourage more science-technology entrepreneurship: lowering the corporate tax rate, making the R&D tax credit permanent, reducing regulations, implementing tort reform – the usual conservative laundry list of remedies to make capitalism ever more laissez-faire.

Romney also believes the idea of using the government as a venture capitalist for budding tech startups to, as he puts it, “pick winners and losers,” is misguided. Somewhat at odds with this philosophy is that he still thinks the federal government has a role to play in supporting basic R&D. According to him, he will “focus government resources on research programs that advance the development of knowledge, and on technologies with widespread application and potential to serve as the foundation for private sector innovation and commercialization.” How his government would sift the winners and losers of research projects is left unsaid.

On the education front, Romney points to the Nation at Risk study to illustrate the dysfunctional nature of the country’s K-12 institutions. To remedy this he espouses the traditional Republican agenda of using school choice, standards testing, and improved teacher recruitment to help boost science education.

Obama takes a more bottom-up and spend-free approach. For example, he wants to inject 100,000 more science and math teachers into schools over the next decade, and use them to train a million scientists and engineers. He is also in favor of doubling funding for agencies like the DOE, NIH and NSF to expand the federal R&D base. Of course, he can’t perform that doubling by decree – a topic we’ll get to in a moment.

In Obama’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, $100 billion was allocated for basic research, education, and various IT infrastructure projects. While that kind of spending represented a useful economic kick in the pants for a country in recession, the policy model is questionable. You don’t just invest in fundamental R&D and infrastructure because you’re in an economic tailspin. You do so continuously, and probably even more so when the economy is booming and federal coffers are full.

Which gets us to the real challenge of either candidate’s agenda: the US Congress. That is the body that actually appropriates funding, and although science and technology initiatives get broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, spending for them does not. For a variety of reasons, both political and economic, the US has become less and less inclined to do long-term investments. And since the R&D community relies on consistent funding to keep multi-year research in place, life there is becoming more precarious.

The America COMPETES Act is the poster child for the dysfunctional nature of federal R&D funding for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). Initially passed into law in 2007 under the Bush Administration, it set out to boost STEM support across the major federal agencies. It was never fully funded to its intended levels, and despite being reauthorized in 2010 (in reduced form), it has failed to live up to its intended goals.

The overarching problem is the federal deficit and the public’s antipathy to raising taxes, which puts unrelenting pressure on discretionary spending. On top of that is a conservative Republican party that is committed to shrinking such spending, and a moderate Democratic party that seems incapable of offering any significant opposition.

The irony is that both Romney and Obama, and Congress for that matter, recognize the importance of technology leadership, and what it means to the future of the country. Everyone’s for it, but the political will to make it an investment priority is missing. Romney and his Republican cohorts believe that it can be done on the cheap, by encouraging private enterprises to take up the R&D slack of the federal government, while the Obama contingent thinks they can convince their opposition to loosen the purse strings. It’s hard to imagine such wishful thinking will lead to a happy ending.

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