Skip to Content
Uncategorized

End of an Era?

Policy: Bush to reevaluate federal dollars for high-tech program.

As President George W. Bush and Congress battled over tax cuts, an element of the president’s budget that some believe could have a much longer-term impact on America’s economic health went largely unnoticed. Bush proposed to stop funding a landmark federal effort to help risky-and potentially lucrative-technologies out of the lab and into the marketplace: the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s $200-million-per-year Advanced Technology Program.

Created in the late 1980s, the program seeks to ensure the United States’ high-tech preeminence by funding development of cutting-edge technologies in corporate research labs. One notable success is the commercialization of DNA chips, which promise to revolutionize medical research and diagnosis. But now Bush has proposed suspending the program’s funding for the next two years (though outstanding grants would be honored) while the U.S. Department of Commerce, which oversees NIST, reviews its economic and technical impact. The president’s action appears to mark a dramatic turn away from federal support for the development of next-generation technology. While the GOP-led Congress fought to kill the program throughout the late 1990s, this is the first time the White House has appeared similarly disposed.

James McGroddy, former head of IBM research, helped start the program but feels its time has passed. “I was a big promoter of it 10 years ago because it was before the big venture capital explosion,” McGroddy says. “I thought there were a lot of good ideas then that needed help to get over the chasm. That’s not the environment we’ve been in for the last four or five years.” In addition, though the program maintains its own economic assessment office, McGroddy questions whether there has been any comprehensive assessment of the program’s economic impact.

Program proponents, however, call the president’s move outrageous. Johns Hopkins economist Maryann Feldman, one of the outside experts who has conducted studies for the assessment office, says the Advanced Technology Program is “probably one of the most studied programs in government.” Former NIST director Lewis Branscomb says, “The radical innovations that create both new markets and new technology are the toughest to bring off, but if you do bring them off successfully, the returns can be hundreds of times what the investment was. That’s what [the program] tries to do.”

And some, pointing to the proliferation of high-tech competitors overseas, see a danger in compromising the program’s future. “Standing down while you reassess the program, that’s two years of opportunities that aren’t met,” says Arden Bement, the head of Purdue University’s nuclear engineering department and chair of the program’s advisory committee. Bement notes that key program staff are likely to leave in the interim, leading to the loss of three to five years of program effectiveness; this could kill the program more efficiently than any direct political challenge.

If it does, it would mean an end to, arguably, one of the most successful technology collaborations of its time between government and industry. 

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Death and Jeff Bezos
Death and Jeff Bezos

Meet Altos Labs, Silicon Valley’s latest wild bet on living forever

Funders of a deep-pocketed new "rejuvenation" startup are said to include Jeff Bezos and Yuri Milner.

tonga eruption
tonga eruption

Tonga’s volcano blast cut it off from the world. Here’s what it will take to get it reconnected.

The world is anxiously awaiting news from the island—but on top of the physical destruction, the eruption has disconnected it from the internet.

mouse engineered to grow human hair
mouse engineered to grow human hair

Going bald? Lab-grown hair cells could be on the way

These biotech companies are reprogramming cells to treat baldness, but it’s still early days.

conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned
conceptual illustration showing various women's faces being scanned

A horrifying new AI app swaps women into porn videos with a click

Deepfake researchers have long feared the day this would arrive.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.