Category Archives: S&T Policy

New Science Policy Blog from the UK

Roger Highfield, editor of the New Scientist, has created a new blog on the interface between science and policy in the UK.   Here’s the opening line in the first edition of November 24, 2009:

 “Welcome to The S Word! This new online forum is where you’ll find New Scientist‘s coverage of science and policy – getting under the skin of politics to show how science is changing our world.”

The first articles are written in a provocative style, well suited for attracting an audience.  If you’re in the USA, they may be more than you want to know about UK science politics, though.

R. D. Shelton

S&T In China: A Roadmap to 2050

CAS Roadmap to 2050

This handsome softcover book has just been released by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and is published in the West by Springer.  Editor-in-Chief Yongziang Lu and his team deserve great credit for making this strategic general report available in English, soon after its publication in China.

The CAS plays a central role in natural sciences in China; thus they took the lead in following up on the National Mid- and Long-Term S&T Plan to 2020, released in 2006.  Of course, command economies have had lots of practice in planning, a talent still useful in today’s more market-oriented economy.  With great effort, and much controversy, Western countries might be able to produce a five- or ten-year plan for S&T; the Chinese now have one for the next 40 years.  Indeed, the book takes a typically Chinese longer view; its treatment of the history of scientific revolutions reaches back centuries.  One thesis is that the Great Recession of 2008-9 might catalyze the next S&T revolution, as similar financial crises have done in the past.  Since this worldwide cataclysm coincided with China’s emergence as challenger to Western leadership in economic and S&T strength, there there is some suggestion that the next revolution may see China become the next “world science center,” following Italy, Britain, France, Germany, and the USA in succession.  In the end they predict that there will be multiple centers, and this roadmap is designed to ensure that China is one of them.

The roadmap follows standard methods; identification of areas of focus (none surprising), characteristics of the areas, objectives for their progress, and research agendas that could achieve that progress.  The plan recognizes that currently “As to S&T development, China is generally a follower and imitator.”  To move toward their goal, “an innovation-driven country with Chinese characteristics,” China must continue to be open to best ideas from abroad, but “original innovation is the source of a country’s international competitiveness.  Key technologies of strategic importance can never be bought from the outside world.”

I think that it’s time that the US learned from the Chinese that long range planning can help guide a nation’s efforts toward great objectives, including leadership in science and technology; their record of meteoric progress speaks for itself.  The new Obama innovation plan requires much more detailed implementation planning, and this Chinese roadmap could be a reasonable model. Our National Academy of Sciences doesn’t have the bulk of the CAS, with its hundreds of research institutes, but it does have the intellectual power to plan at least as effectively.

R. D. Shelton

Maintaining U.S. Scientific Leadership: English and Immigrants are the Immediate Needs

This posting at Science Progress is ancient history in blogging terms. But wait! Why do the value of blogs have to be measured in days?  It’s true that my favorites, the Huffington Post and Wonkette, report on current events, but the blog medium is supposed to be an on-line journal of some lasting value.  Indeed, search engines find older posts even easier than new.  This short essay is just as true today as when it was written a couple of years ago.

Dr. R. O. Lempert of GWU has provided a thoughtful analysis of why the US is declining (relatively) in science, and he has some good ideas about how to deal with that decline. Others have also pointed out the critical need to maintain the flow of the immigrants who bolster our science and technology. I hadn’t previously thought, however, of the need to encourage the continued use of English as the language of science.

R. D. Shelton

China’s Emerging Technological Edge by Simon and Cao

The controversy over the influential “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report brought the issue of China’s science personnel to national attention.  The Academy’s “RAGS” report got the attention of the White House and Congress partly by pointing with alarm at huge and rapidly growing numbers of technical graduates in China.  Then it was found that some of the data used was suspect, undercutting some of the basis for the American Competitiveness Initiative and the America COMPETES Act. 

Simon and Cao have perfomed a much needed service in compiling a defensible database and a comprehensive analysis of Chinese data on their human resources in scientific and technology (HRST). While their findings are much more nuanced than those in the RAGS report, they confirm that its general picture was true.  Chinese HRST is growing rapidly in quantity and quality, contributing to a challenge to Western science leadership generally. While rapid growth has its problems, as the authors show, huge investments in science education are paying quick dividends to China’s efforts to become an S&T superpower.  Unlike the West, there is no shortage in China of well-qualified students who want to train for science careers; with a population of 1.3 billion, China has more smart people than the US has people.

Of course, the book’s focus on HRST prevents detailed coverage of other factors contributing to China’s sharp advance in S&T.  Your reviewer believes that huge and rapidly increasing direct investments in R&D are even more important.

R. D. Shelton

Canadian S&T Policy Conference Talks Posted

This Oct. 28-30 conference focused on Canada, which is interesting in its own right, of course.  The conference also had some comparisons of S&T policies from other countries, like the behemoth next door.  As I have said, I’d like to see a conference like this here in Baja Ontario, to discuss how to implement the recent US S&T innovation plan.

R. D. Shelton

World Leadership Goals of the New OSTP Compared to the Old

When President George W. Bush finally appointed Jack Marburger to be the Director of OSTP in June, 2000, I reported in my old ITRInews #34 that the press release clearly signaled a downgrade of the position, indeed the rumours were that several candidates had turned down the position for that reason. 

This was not the only downgrade.   Fourteen months later, their former top goal, as stated in first sentence on the OSTP homepage, “The Federal Government plays a critical role in maintaining American leadership in science and technology.”  disappeared completely from the site, without comment.   See the ITRInews #48 article and editorial, “The dog that didn’t bark.”  (In the interests of full disclosure, I had actually sent a letter to Dr. Marburger warning that, based on scores of WTEC studies, such a goal was going to be difficult to achieve.  I doubt if I had any impact on this decision, though; he or his staff certainly didn’t reply.)

Insiders in the Bush OSTP have told me that they just got tired of being hammered by agencies who pointed with alarm abroad to bolster their requests for more money.  So the easiest thing was to just get rid of the goal that President Truman had set in 1950–they probably didn’t even know that history.  The last time I looked, the White House OMB still puts this goal in its annual budget submissions to Congress, but they seem to only be talking at the US input investment in R&D being greater than any other country, not any kind of output performance measure.

The new OSTP doesn’t exactly highlight this goal either. Their website now starts with,

“The Office of Science and Technology Policy advises the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs. The office serves as a source of scientific and technological analysis and judgment for the President with respect to major policies, plans and programs of the Federal Government. OSTP leads an interagency effort to develop and implement sound science and technology policies and budgets. The office works with the private sector to ensure Federal investments in science and technology contribute to economic prosperity, environmental quality, and national security.”

But if you drill down into the site, you find their new innovation strategic plan that does address this goal.  (We wonks had waited in vain for eight years for the Bush Administration to produce an S&T  plan.) The plan has near the top:

“1. Invest in the Building Blocks of American Innovation. We must first ensure that our economy is given all the necessary tools for successful innovation, from investments in research and development to the human, physical, and technological capital needed to perform that research and transfer those innovations.

 Restore American leadership in fundamental research. President Obama implemented the largest increase in basic R&D in history, which will lay the foundation for new discoveries and new technologies that will improve our lives and create the industries of the future.”

Nitpickers will notice that restoring leadership in fundamental research is not nearly as a broad as Truman’s goal of maintaining world leadership in S&T generally, but it is a start.

R. D. Shelton

ACS Calls for More DOD R&D To Maintain our Technological Edge

The American Chemical Society has 154,000 members, making it the world’s largest scientific society.  Many are international, but like the US arm of the largest engineering society, IEEE-USA, ACS provides a legislative agenda to represent its US members, and what it sees as the national interest, to the Federal Government.  Their policy statement on the FY2010 budget for the Department of Defense is quoted below, since I think it makes an excellent case for R&D investment to maintain our technological edge for national security, and reports on how DOD is not meeting that challenge.

We will soon see the final numbers for the DOD budget, and I doubt that it will be possible to meet the ACS goals within a budget that has to pay for two wars that have already lasted longer than any previous US wars. I don’t envy those who have to make allocations between the need to contain nasty, but limited, threats from Al Qaeda now, and likely much worse threats from emerging superpowers  later. The President’s speech last night touched on one aspect of this dilemma, not guns vs. butter, but guns now vs. investments in the economic strength to buy guns later.  The ACS says:

“The American Chemical Society (ACS) continues to call for increased investment in the Department of Defense (DOD) Science & Technology (S&T) portfolio. Specifically, we support a $400 million increase to peer-reviewed basic research for a total of $2.2 billion in FY 2010, an 18 percent increase over FY 2009.

Research sponsored by DOD is fundamental to protecting the lives of U.S. military men and women and maintaining our military’s technological edge. The basic research programs (6.1 account) underpin advances in applied research and advanced technology development, as well as progress in basic science and engineering research nationwide. Collectively, these programs advance scientific knowledge and enable new technologies and applications critical to the DOD mission, as well as being valuable in the civilian sector.

ACS supports the goal of reserving three percent of the DOD budget for S&T as called for by the Defense Sciences Board. This is consistent with funding levels necessary to replenish the pipeline for future war fighting advances and recommendations put forth by the National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Through declining budget requests, DOD has steadily shifted away from fundamental, long-term research. The president’s specific request for a decline in funding continues this trend and is now less than 60 percent of the goal for basic research set by the Defense Science Board.”

There’s more at the link below, but you get the idea. 

R. D. Shelton

Key US Decision Makers on S&T Policy: Members of Congress

One benefit of working on the Hill is that you quickly learn which Members and Committees you might be able to influence on particular issues.  There are usually only a few. 

Most Members vote the party line decided by the leadership, and your chances of changing this pattern are slim.  More than 90% of Members are in safe seats where incumbents are reelected with only token opposition; these Members may want your friendship, but they don’t need it. 

Most committees are authorization bodies that have little power over appropriations that drive real actions.  Unfortunately, the House and Senate science committees are this type, useful for airing your views, but with not much influence on outcomes.  In some industries, authorization committees do dictate regulations that are important to corporations, but, except for telecommunications and high-tech immigration, S&T mostly doesn’t fall into this class. Committees that control taxation, like Ways and Means in the House, are as powerful as Appropriations, because they have an even bigger effect on a corporation’s bottom line.

Thus the most important of the 535 Members for increased support of S&T are: (1) in swing districts or states that are evenly divided between parties, (2) in the (small) middle of the political spectrum so that they might be swayed by a good policy or political argument, (3) on the most powerful committees for S&T, and (4) particularly in the House, have the clout that comes from seniority.  (They need to be predisposed to support S&T, but, except for a handful of Flat Earth Society supporters, Members do–it’s a motherhood, God, and apple pie issue.) This is a manageable short list, and I will try post a series on several of them.

R. D. Shelton

PS: It’s not enough to just get lukewarm support; to push anything through Congress, you need at least one champion to take the lead–by expending hard work, time (in very short supply), and some of their own precious political capital.  This must be a Member of Congress; staff will not do.  This principle has been around for awhile: the 19th Century term for Congressional champion was horse–to pull your wagon.  And who might be willing to be that champion?  I have some ideas, which I will post later.


Key US Decision Makers on S&T Policy: President Barak Obama

The pale guy on the right is your humble author.  I didn’t crash this event, but I wasn’t impressed with its security, either.

Of course, the President has more influence over S&T policy than anyone else in town. Fortunately he seems to be sympathetic to reaping the benefits of our investments in R&D by manufacturing and selling some of our inventions.

President Obama has restored the role of the White House science advisor and has said some constructive things about goals. OSTP released the first S&T strategic plan in a long time only eight months after the Administration took office. As I reviewed earlier ( ), it gets off to a good start by setting a goal of R&D investment of 3% of GDP, and identifies some reasonable focus areas. However, it is short on incentives for the private sector to cooperate, and by speaking only of economic motivations for R&D, forfeits the most powerful motivator for the Congress and public: national security. (On November 17 the Washington Post reported on a survey that asked the public which government agency was most respected. DOD was on top with four times more votes than NIH; Commerce was not on the list.) These problems could be solved by a more detailed implementation plan.

We S&T enthusiasts have to remember that the President has far more immediate problems, and his attention span can’t exceed 24 hours a day.  It’s hard to remember to floss to keep your teeth,  when you are up to your waist in alligators.  We can try to keep his attention by approaching him through the right channels: OSTP, PCAST, the right members of Congress, and maybe his chief of staff–apparently that’s the contact that got President Bush’s attention on the RAGS report.  I’ll provide more on these contacts later.

R. D. Shelton

Key US Decision Makers in S&T Policy: A Series

As you may have gathered from earlier posts, I believe that American S&T is in more trouble than ever before, despite encouraging signs from the Obama Administration and the Congress.   Even if the Federal Government did everything right, it is quite unlikely that the private sector would cooperate as much as needed; we only have to look at the EU experience of the last decade.  I had a chance to buttonhole a VP of a major US (actually global) corporation recently, and asked him what it would take for his company to locate their next R&D lab in the US. He laughed.

To remedy the problem that I and those of the US innovation movement see, we need to focus on key decision makers in the US.  I know the government officials better than corporation types, so this series will introduce them first. 

I have to hew to a fine line here.  My non-profit scientific research companies are basically not allowed to lobby.  They can provide information on government policy to you.  As individuals, you and I are indeed allowed to lobby the government for remedies to national problems, as long as we don’t do anything improper that would have to be reported on the certs we have to send in with every proposal.  Research!America has played this game with wild success, so far, in doubling the NIH budget, and other initiatives, so it can be done.

Every Member of Congress has to raise huge sums of money for campaigns to keep their jobs and thus need all the friends they can get.  If you become their friend, they are a lot more likely to pay attention to you.  That’s the way the world works, and it’s entirely legal, as long as you know the rules and follow them.

R. D. Shelton