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A Message to Congress

The process of innovation is a delicate ecosystem. Don’t mess it up.
October 1, 1997

Not long ago, U.S. high-tech industries were sagging. The market share of U.S. companies was declining dramatically in everything from semiconductors to consumer electronics to machine tools. The situation was so dire that in April 1991 Intel CEO Andy Grove warned that the United States was in danger of becoming a “technological colony.”

Three years later, the situation had brightened measurably. For example, U.S. companies dominated the markets for microprocessors and for cellular phones. The Council on Competitiveness-a nonpartisan forum of chief executives-issued a report in 1994 identifying 22 technologies where the U.S. position had improved, including structural ceramics, display materials, and photonics. Our renewed ability to compete arose from some subtle changes during the early 1990s that made our innovation system much more effective. Unfortunately, the 104th Congress lost sight of this bigger picture and even seemed intent on undermining this progress.

The House, for example, tried to eliminate the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which has the responsibility of maintaining the nation’s physical standards, such as our units of length and time. While the private sector is a beneficiary of standards, industry cannot maintain something as fundamental as the second or the meter. The 104th Congress also discouraged cooperative projects between industry and the national laboratories-collaborations that have helped move the fruits of publicly funded R&D into the commercial sector.

This strategy is counterproductive. After all, much of the recent good news on the rebound of U.S. industry stems from the federally lubricated interaction among the key players in the innovation process-companies and universities. A good example is the manufacture of hard disks for computer data storage, today a $50 billion industry. In the late 1980s, Japan was poised to dominate this market. But in 1990, specifically in response to the opportunity to receive funding from the Department of Commerce, U.S. participants in this industry formed the National Storage Industry Consortium. At the same time, the National Science Foundation established an engineering research center on data storage. This center, at Carnegie Mellon University, has produced more than 100 scientists and engineers with advanced degrees and has pointed the way toward new technologies. The result is that storage densities (the number of digital bits that can be crammed onto each square millimeter of disk) have over the past five years been growing at 60 percent annually-twice the rate of progress the industry considered normal in the pre-consortium era.

Most agree that the federal government should maintain an environment conducive to technological innovation. To some this means absolutely no intervention. But the government has responsibilities, such as public health and national defense, that depend on a strong innovation process. The process is a “public good” and as such is entitled to federal support.

In recognizing this responsibility, the government has created a rich array of agencies, programs, and policies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) funds basic research. The Department of Energy maintains national research facilities. The Small Business Administration helps inventors develop ideas. The Commerce Department’s Advanced Technology Program funds development too risky for industry. The Department of Defense sponsors about 70 percent of all university research in electronics and computing. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 gives universities rights to their federally funded research.

Such diversity enriches the innovation system and enhances its responsiveness, making the United States more competitive. But the system is like a delicately balanced ecosystem. The 105th Congress needs to recognize what its predecessor seemed to disregard: actions taken that affect one element of the fabric may unintentionally tear at the whole. For example, in 1994 a congressional subcommittee seriously entertained a suggestion to drastically reduce Department of Defense funding to universities. This proposal reveals a lack of appreciation that DOD supports nearly as many graduate students as NSF. More recent legislation would have limited the exchange of information generated by publicly funded research in the name of protecting intellectual property and thus make collaboration virtually impossible.

This Congress must avoid undermining the scientific and technological enterprise-and its collaborative and entrepreneurial nature-that drives our economic expansion. What makes this so challenging is that any one member of Congress has control over only a small piece of this mosaic. Each member must look beyond that piece of federal science and technology under his or her committee and assess the impact on the innovation process as a whole.

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