In 1983 I left my engineering professor’s job at the University of Louisville to be a rotator at the National Science Foundation, as a science policy analyst. My boss was Frank Huband who taught me the ropes. Policy analysis and government policy generally were all new to me, but they turned out to be fun. I soon caught Potomac Fever, and wanted to stay in the capital, instead of returning to the provinces. The Courier-Journal’s local news could not compare to the politics, government, and international news in the Washington Post
One of my first efforts at NSF was to try to kill the Internet, which was then being developed there. I was paying the bills for the NSF working group that was expanding the DARPA network to provide email to all scientists. The thing that bothered me is that that the Congress had been sold on this effort for something completely different. They had given millions to NSF to ward off the threat to American supercomputer leadership from the Japanese. The working group was using these funds to expand the new email service from a few researchers in the in-group at DARPA to all scientists supported at NSF. They hooked this into the original purpose by some smoke and mirrors about high speed visualization of supercomputer output, telemedicine, and other high bandwidth (56Kbps!) applications. I was pretty green, but even I could see that this was nonsense, and I worried that the Congress might stomp on NSF for this diversion of funds. I wrote a couple of issue papers to the NSF director warning about this, but fortunately, no one paid any attention to them. If I had been a more effective policy analyst, maybe there would be no Internet today. And this was my first lesson in international competitiveness of S&T.
My next lesson was the international technology watching activity that I continue today. As early as the 1970s, Japan was getting rich by manufacturing high technology products for world markets, initially by making products invented in the US and Europe. In the early 1980s, they started using some of their profits to become self sufficient by doing their own invention. This challenged US dominance of R&D, and some in the US began to get concerned. George Gamota convinced the US Government to start monitoring S&T developments in Japan with a program called JTECH. Somehow funding of the program ended up my modest NSF office, which did have a great view of the Potomac. The program was being conducted by the giant SAIC company, and my job as COTR was to make sure things went well. We started sending delegations of American experts to Japan to gather S&T information, a methodology that we also learned from the Japanese. The final reports and workshops were well received and several agencies started chipping in to help fund individual studies, encouraged by George.
When my IPA was over, I found a job in nearby Baltimore at Loyola College as chair of their Computer Science Department. After a decent interval, I made a bid to move the JTECH program to Loyola, which was accepted by NSF in 1989. We changed the name slightly to JTEC, the Japanese Technology Evaluation Center. Soon glasnost permitted us to start sending delegations to the USSR, so we changed the “Japanese” to “World,” thus WTEC. Foreign technology watching proved so popular with Federal agencies that WTEC accounted for most of Loyola’s sponsored research for years. In 2001 we spun WTEC off as a separate non-profit research institute, and it has continued to be one of the Government’s main methods of assessing R&D in the US and abroad. In recent years, we have supplemented the original peer review methods with objective indicators, like scientific papers, citations to them, patents, and the like.
While at Loyola, I got an IEEE Congressional Fellowship to work on the Hill for a year as a sabbatical project. As I was packing my bags to go work for the House Science Committee, the Republican Revolution captured the House in November, 1995. After 40 years in the minority wilderness, they had plenty of ideas about what should be changed. The Democratic staff shrank to fit its Spartan exile in the Ford House Office Building, and I had to scramble to find another job. I ended up as a Legislative Assistant to the newly elected Hon. Lloyd Doggett, who represented Austin, Texas. I learned twice as fast on this job than usual, partly because of the 80-hour weeks. Among other chores, I drafted a lot of responses to mail from constituents, covering environmental, science, technology, telecommunications, and whatever issues the other LAs didn’t want. I was immediately struck by the imbalance between these issues; I got almost a hundred times as much mail from tree-huggers as from scientists and engineers, despite Austin being a hot bed of high tech industry. It quickly became clear to me that S&T had a very low priority for the attention of the Congress and why. When I left the job, I wrote some stuff for the IEEE and ASEE appealing to their members to get more politically involved, but lately I have concluded that this is a systemic problem that will take a lot more than a few more letters to your Congressman.
In all I have been making objective assessments of American science leadership for more than 25 years. During that time, I have watched the US relative position decline, year after year. Frankly, pointing with alarm abroad helps us raise money for WTEC studies. But the situation has deteriorated to the point that we usually no longer seek threats to American leadership in a field, but rather seek to document how far behind we already are. I have come to see this as a serious threat to our national security and economic prosperity, which is the motivation for all these words, this blog, WTEC, and what little scholarship I have time to do.
R. D. Shelton