Science and Technology Policy in 2001: New Congress...

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Science and Technology Policy in 2001: New Congress...

October 6, 2000 23 min read
The Honorable Bob Walker
Coordinator of The Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office

I thought I would talk to you not as somebody who is a technologist and not as somebody who is a scientist, but as somebody who has spent quite a bit of time looking at the intersection between politics and policy, and science and technology. If you look at the dimensions of the new economy, that intersection is going to be an extremely important public policy question and is going to dominate questions like what kind of politics is played that formulates the policy.

Let me begin with three observations or illustrations that will help me make the point.

First of all, the Apollo program was obviously a technology triumph. It's the technology triumph from at least the latter half of the 20th century that people point to all the time, and that the average person reflects upon. How many times in your life have you heard somebody say, "Well, if we can go to the moon, we can do such and such"? And they name everything under the sun that it is possible to do simply because we had the technology triumph of going to the moon.

We need to understand that this was a technological triumph that was politically driven. It became an imperative in the Cold War that we demonstrate to the rest of the world, and particularly the Soviet Union, that we had the capability of challenging them in an arena where they had begun to show considerable advances themselves. And what we needed was a visible, public program that allowed us to do the military programs that were the backstop.

Those of you who are familiar, as a result of some of the public information we now have, with the size of the satellites we were flying in the national reconnaissance program back in the 1960s and 1970s understand the need for that kind of almost political cover story. We were able to spend enormous amounts of money on the Apollo program to achieve the ultimate technological triumph.

So one of the lessons is that if there is something that somebody who is knowledgeable about the subject believes can be accomplished technologically, and if you throw enough money at it, the chances are you may be able to achieve it.

But it's also the case that what it proved to a lot of people was that there can be government missions that in fact accomplish great goals. So there's been a tendency by some people to point to an Apollo type of program as the thing that we should do in order to achieve technological success.

A second observation is that I happened to be the ranking minority member of the subcommittee when Al Gore was inventing the Internet, so I have a fairly clear recognition of what was going on at that time, and it may be one of the reasons why these days I'm a Bush advisor on science and technology and space matters because I know where Al Gore comes from on some of these things, having served with him on the committee.

I will give Al Gore credit during that period for being somebody who recognized the potential of what was then the ARPAnet as maybe a huge tool for economic development in the future. What we need to understand, though, is that his solution, or his idea of how you carry this forward, was 180 degrees from what actually happened. I think that's important. He had a laugh line on David Letterman the other evening: "I gave you the Internet; I can take it away."

The fact is that the policies he advocated at that time would have taken it away anyway, because what he envisioned was a huge government information pipeline run by the government for the government, and then businesses might be able to tap in. He was going to have government spend billions of dollars to create switching equipment that would allow government control of this new concept.

It turned out that we didn't need the government involved and that software developments and, later, hardware developments got us to where he wanted to go without having the government be the ultimate arbiter. Government created, again, the system that allowed us to begin to believe that we could have this kind of information flow, but they did not get involved in designing the aftermath. And that's an important distinction in government policies.

Third, in 1995, soon after the Republican Party had taken control of Congress, and right after we had actually passed in the House all of the things that were contained in the Contract with America--or at least got them to the floor, with the exception of one--the Speaker decided that there was a need for an off-site conference by all members of the Republican House delegation to decide what the next step in the agenda should be.

We went out to a facility in Northern Virginia, and Jerry Clymer helped us put all of that together. One of the Speaker's biggest objectives at that particular conference was to get a buy-in to the idea that we were going to be the party of the third wave; that we were going to begin to adopt policy options that would allow us to dominate the debate on the information economy that a handful of us believed was coming.

So he designed a statement that he hoped that that particular meeting would adopt, which would have given him the ability to plan toward a kind of domination of the new economy agenda. We got out to that conference, went to breakout sessions to begin to discuss the agenda, and I wandered around as the Speaker's helper in some of these breakout sessions, only to find that particular idea being laughed out of every room where the sessions were being held. One particularly powerful committee chairman was describing it as psychobabble. By the time the matter got to the floor, it was literally hooted down in the full session.

People said that this is "way-out" stuff. We're concentrating on winning the election in 1996, and we don't have time to fool around with this pie-in-the-sky kind of thing. This new economy--maybe it's real 20 years from now, but it's not real now, and we've got to tie ourselves to the industrial economy models.

This was a widely shared opinion by a group of people who had just come to power. This wasn't the old establishment necessarily hanging onto the status quo; this was where they really felt the nation was. My guess is that five years later none of them will admit to having been a part of that particular discussion because, clearly, now everybody's agenda is that they're high-tech experts. Although there are a few of them who can't turn on a computer yet, there is a very real buy-in at the present time, and I think the important issue is how quickly it came.

So what are the lessons of those observations for science and technology policy? First of all, the biggest developments are not always the most obvious contributions to later success. Apollo got a lot of headlines at the time we were running that program and, as I say, impacted the public's view of the success of technology.

However, it was during that same period that there were lots of people working on things like silicon chips that allowed the information technology to go online, that allowed the domination that we now see in the economy, and, particularly, that permitted American dominance of the new economy after it emerged.

The second thing is that government solutions to technological problems are not likely to be ahead of the curve. Government, in its role of making policy, which turns into control, is simply always behind the curve of technology developments, particularly today.

I have a portrait above the fireplace in my office. It's a portrait of Mario Andretti, and people come in and are kind of startled by that at first. The reason it's there is because Mario Andretti has a quote that I like and use often in speeches. It says, "If you're in control, you're not going fast enough." I have it there because it tells me a lot of what's happening in the business world today, and it is particularly true in the science and technology world. Any time you think you have your arms wrapped around something and you've got it under control, the fact is that competitors are breathing down your neck. You're not going fast enough.

Yet the whole goal of government is to get just that kind of control, to get their arms wrapped around things. In a global economy, you simply are not moving fast enough to be in the lead for very long. So government solutions should not be relied upon.

The third point is that government policymakers today are in the position of reacting rather than acting. That's a very different kind of psychological position to be in, as a society and as practicing politicians, than we're used to. Many people got involved in government throughout this past century with the idea that they were going to make a difference; that that was where the action was; that if you were going to interact globally, you had to do it from a government base; and that if you were going to change the nature of society, you were going to do it from a government base.

Today, that is not where the action is. A recent article describes the State Department's problems in recruiting and retaining people, because a lot of people are finding that they can have more impact outside government and in global businesses than they can in the government.

That's true across the board. It's true of those of us in Congress.

One reason why I'm in the private sector today is because I concluded that the people that were making the decisions with impact, the people who were determining the new high-tech economy, were not those of us in Congress; that by the time that we got a chance to reflect upon what was happening, the decisions had already been made and all we were doing was clean-up detail. You've got to understand that the premise of the new economy is different in terms of where real action takes place.

What do you do, then, to begin to define the role of government in that new economy? I think you have to start with some basic premises about what the future looks like and what future government policy looks like.

First, I don't think you can have a rational government policy that doesn't put the emphasis on basic research as a government mission. The fact is that in the new high-tech economy, in the new economy that is moving so fast, where no one seems to be in control, the ability of businesses to get the money that they need to do basic research that often has five-, 10-, 20-year lead times is almost impossible. Yet the new economy is absolutely reliant upon the development of new knowledge. Without new knowledge, you basically cut off the air flow to that economy.

As a nation, if we want to maintain a leadership position, we have to be in the business of creating new knowledge. The way you create new knowledge is through basic research. So if government has a particular place where it needs to be making investments, the investments have to be made in the basic research arena. That means making certain that not only is the National Institutes of Health funded, but also that the National Science Foundation and other places that support the basic research agenda of the nation get the money they require to see that we have a spread of research across the entire economy. Even with long lead times, it's new knowledge that's being created and that can be turned into products fairly quickly as long as that knowledge is made broadly available.

Second, there is a need for us to accept the idea of mission-driven technology development, particularly in areas like the space program. You can get big payoffs from government having a specific mission and carrying out that mission. It may have defense implications. It may be civilian space where we're exploring the outer planets or beyond the solar system. But if there is a particular mission involved, you can get some technology payoffs from government.

So my second tier of investment that government would make in the new economy would be to use the knowledge that is being created in government labs and in university labs and elsewhere to be applied to particular missions that are valuable for the government to do. We ought not artificially create missions, but there are certain things that government should be doing that we can begin to build programs around.

Third, if you are going to be successful in the new economy, you have to figure out ways that government minimizes regulation in favor of distribution of information. Business is working very hard to put together systems that allow them to do just that. It is amazing to me that government hasn't yet figured out that they need to move in the same direction.

For example, most businesses no longer have a stovepipe titled "information" and a stovepipe that is "operations." They have, in fact, intertwined operations and information into an almost seamless way of operating their businesses. The reality of the new economy is that you're able to do that. Yet government, for the most part, is operating within stovepipes that if they talk about information, that's over here in this category, and if we talk about operations, that's over in another category; as an internal function of government, the focus is mostly on operations rather than information.

Therefore, if you're oriented toward operations, the only way you can get control is through regulation. The fact is that if government intertwined the two and had more information available to it and was better at utilizing that information, there would be less need for regulation. And the more you can minimize regulation, the more likely you are to see the growth curve in the new economy continue to climb.

It is true, however, that you will have to have some degree of regulation in all of this, simply because of the global nature of the new economy. You can't look across the world and see that there are all kinds of people with all kinds of laws and not realize that somehow you're going to have to regularize some of that somewhere along the line. That's probably going to involve some government-to-government solutions that will then result in standards that would come through the regulatory process.

In my view, standards work to the advantage of those who happen to be in a leadership position at the time the standards are set. So it's imperative for the United States to stay in a leadership position so that as standardization takes place, we are the ones who control the standards for the world.

Fourth, it is important that, as we think about regulation and as we think about the development for the future, we understand that science has to be a part of developing law and regulation. Too much of what we do at the present time is based upon the latest horror that "60 Minutes" has turned up, or "20/20" or one of those shows. We react instantly, without a great deal of thought and understanding about the scientific basis that may or may not exist for what we're writing into law.

With so much of the new economy dependent upon technology, we have to be particularly careful that what we do in the area of government controls is based on good science. It's not going to make it perfect, but at least we ought to recognize that without a good scientific base, you're going to make very bad missteps.

Global warming is a good example. I'm not greatly enthusiastic about some of what this administration has done in that area, but I'm not ready to write off the idea that there may be something to the theory. What I am prepared to write off is the idea that we know something at the present time. The fact is that we don't have a lot of good science, so what we ought to be investing in is getting the good science that we need in order to decide whether or not there are international agreements that should be forged, or whether or not there are changes in the economy that should take place based upon real scientific evidence. Most scientists will tell you that there could be a problem, so develop the science regime that gives you the basis on which to say, "Yes, there is a problem."

How do you deal with global warming, for example, without having detailed data about the interface between the oceans, which cover a large portion of the globe, and the atmosphere? Yet it's only been within the last few years that we've even had computers that allow us to do that kind of interface work. So the issue here is not whether or not something has merit to be investigated, but whether simply because you're investigating it means that you should begin regulating it. In the new economy, I suggest that regulation always fall behind the development of good information.

Fifth, we have to deal with this power equation of reacting rather than acting, and we have to understand that in government, we are not going to be able to define the future in political terms. The new generation of products coming online in the new economy sometimes have three- to six-month product cycles. It takes government 18 months to do one budget. From the time the numbers first go on paper until you pass the final appropriations bill, it's about an 18-month cycle, which means that you could have anywhere from six to three generations of new technology come online while the government's doing one budget.

And we think we're going to get ahead of the curve in government? It's not real. So what we've got to figure out is, how does government play a responsible role at a time when they are going to be in a reaction mode?

Let me look ahead and tell you what I think is coming down the line that may define a couple of challenges.

First of all, it seems to me that information technology is changing dramatically the politics of the nation. I say that because I really believe that the old Tip O'Neill statement that "All politics is local" is now outmoded. I believe all politics has become individual: that the information revolution allows you to approach people as individuals and almost customize the policies for individuals, or at least customize the discussion with them.

So a lot of the old mass-media techniques that have worked so well begin to look more and more outmoded in a world where information is widely available and dispersed. What it says to me is that politicians are going to have to catch up to where the advertising industry is at the present time, which is focusing their message at an individual level. We have to understand that that is a very dramatic change and is certainly outside the realm where most political consultants have grown up and, therefore, where they practice their trade.

If you wonder why more and more American people are getting detached from the political process, it's because the political process isn't speaking to them through the means that they have come to rely upon in the information stream. It also means that individuals today have a very focused set of interests, and if you can't get inside what it is they're interested in, you're not going to be able to approach them.

Those who know me know that I'm a Corvette nut, and there are four magazines a month that arrive at my house that are devoted to nothing but Corvettes. There are about 54 Web sites that are devoted to nothing but Corvettes. So if you are a Corvette nut, you can immerse yourself in information about Corvettes, and if you never want to leave that particular little world, there's enough out there to allow you to stay in that little world almost full-time.

How is some politician running for office going to penetrate the Corvette world? He might drive one and get his name in those publications. But I submit to you that most Americans have interests of that kind, and because of the volume of information, they're not looking at or reading everything; they're choosing what to look at. I've got about 170 channels available on my cable television, and I'm making selections every night about whether or not I watch the political debate or old Andy Griffith reruns. That option wasn't available before. It is now, and we'd better begin to figure out how you focus the message.

Second, there are new directions in high tech. Once again, because something begins to fascinate us, because we get involved and begin to think of high tech as computers and the Internet and all of that, we lose sight of the fact that what's happening in those arenas is changing things happening in other arenas. I would submit to you that one of the high-tech arenas that we are going to see develop very rapidly is going to be in the energy regimes, that you are going to have a dramatic change in how we view the use of energy and the energy issues that get developed.

I've been a big advocate for some years of the development of a hydrogen economy. As you begin to see brown-outs affecting major segments of the country, as you see people protesting in Europe over gasoline prices, having alternatives to carbon-based fuels doesn't seem that ridiculous. The advantage to hydrogen is that, because hydrogen is not an energy itself but a carrier of energy, you can utilize all of the advanced concepts that are around toward energy development and use hydrogen, which is non-polluting, as the carrier.

I think, based upon what we've seen in the aerospace industry and a number of other places, that there's real potential in that arena. You now have people like the head of General Motors and the heads of several of the major oil companies now committing themselves to a hydrogen future.

But here's what begins to happen. Hydrogen will probably be delivered through fuel cells. Fuel cells mean that you no longer have to be tied to a utility to power your home. You can buy your individual fuel cell, much like your air conditioner unit, to supply your own power. Think of the economic impact to a sector that has been heavily regulated and has been in the technological doldrums for 20 or 30 years. All of a sudden, there will be competition, and the only reason people with a fuel cell might be hooked into a utility company would be to sell energy back to the utility. Government and policymakers need to begin to think about what distributed energy might be in terms of a high-tech development that makes perfect sense in a world that's changing.

Those of you who have had an opportunity to use nanotechnology may understand that those of us who like hydrogen also like nanotechnology because it supplies a storage capacity for hydrogen. But nanotechnology is, of course, the development of machines, robots, storage capacity, a number of things at the cellular level, and developments in the laboratory come fairly rapidly at the present time.

I have here a piece of material. It's a small piece of black material that's essentially a nanotube tech material that was developed at the Ames Research Station in California. The important thing about this is that they are able to produce materials that are based upon these cellular concepts. So you end up with a material which is many times stronger than steel but much lighter and has the ability within the cells to store something like hydrogen.

Now you can begin to see automotive frames and whole automotive bodies built with nanotube technology that are very strong, very lightweight, and can store the fuel on board without the need for large tanks. Again, it's high tech that's coming in an area where we thought we had our arms wrapped around what was going on.

Also, there are machines that are one cell thick, working as gears that can be used in biomedical applications--for example, robots that are so small that they can actually be put into your blood stream to search for a developing cancer cell and intelligently attack it before it has a chance to become a cancerous growth.

So there are a lot of things coming down the line in the area of nanotechnology, and it seems to me that all of these things are within the Internet technologies and the Internet economy, but beyond it as well.

Finally, let me talk about a couple of challenges. It seems to me that the challenges for the near term are to keep government from getting in the way of all these developments, whether it's on the Internet side, the energy side, or the nanotechnology side. All of these things need a lot of fresh air in order to develop. They need a lot of investment.

What we can't be in the business of doing is discouraging investment, because we will never have enough government money to spend in all the arenas that are now developing and that the human mind can dream up. If we commit ourselves to only government programs, we commit ourselves to falling rapidly behind.

We have to begin defining the investments that we do make properly, because some of the definitions that we use today are still old-economy definitions rather than new-economy. For example, if you have billions of dollars worth of assets in space that are absolutely vital to the communications regime--such as remote sensing and a lot of other things that we now do from space--billions of dollars worth of assets out there are completely undefended. Should we invest our money in defenses based upon the old economy? Or should we transfer some of that investment to the assets of the new economy, many of which are space-based and, at the present time, have no defense whatsoever?

I would suggest to you that there needs to be a turn, and the problem is that a lot of the structure which is in place is old-economy structure. The departments of government are based upon agrarian and industrial society. There is nothing in the structure of the departments of government that relates very much to the new economy.

We also need to recognize that society has changed substantially. I'll give you one example that disturbed me the other day. When Dick Cheney was forced to give up his stock options in order to join government, I think that was a precedent that will backfire in huge ways because it's a precedent that probably will spill over into the appointments of the new administration, whether it's a Gore administration or a Bush administration. Either one is going to have this difficult problem.

If you want people who really understand the new economy and have been practitioners of it, and their asset base is largely in stock options, you will have to say to them, "Oh, by the way, you have to give up all your assets in order to come." I don't think you're going to have many people showing up at your door.

I think it's a misunderstanding about the real nature of what's developing out there, and how people define themselves and their asset base and how they define what it is they're doing these days. And we have to change to go with it.

In education, we now have the ability to use computers and to use information sciences to individualize programs that teach students--to take the kid that's interested in Corvettes like me and teach him history, English, math, and science based upon his interest in the Corvette. I would have learned a lot more science if you'd told me that what I was learning was how to soup up a Chevy 283 engine.

You have the capability of being able to do that today if you recognize the changed nature of society and the opportunities available to us. You can't do it if you accept the status quo--that teachers imparting information from the front of the classroom is the only way learning takes place. That's not going to work.

Finally, it seems to me that we have to encourage rather than create innovation. The policies of government, and where we go as a nation in the future, has to be the kind of thing that says to people, "If you take this step, the government will in fact encourage you, but the government is not going to define what it is you create."

One last example: It seems to me that if you want to develop space infrastructure--a very expensive enterprise, and government is not doing a very good job of paying for it at the present time, and businesses are having trouble finding people to invest--why not give them incentive? Don't rely upon government contracts to do it; give them an incentive. Tell them that if you develop space infrastructure, we will allow you to float tax-free bonds to pay the bill. That way, a company that wants to get something underway would receive the advantage of having lower interest that it has to pay on the money, and the investor would get a tax-free investment. Give him some encouragement, and in the end, we would develop some space infrastructure in the same way that we develop municipal infrastructure today: with tax-free bonds.

That is the kind of encouragement in this new economy that government should be providing. Government should not seek to control it; rather, it should seek to encourage it.

The Honorable Bob Walker is a former Member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. During the 104th Congress, he served as chairman of the Committee on Science and vice chairman of the Committee on the Budget. He is currently chairman and CEO of the Wexler Group. In 1996, his leadership in advancing the nation's space program, especially in the area of commercial space, made him the first sitting House Member to be awarded NASA's highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.


The Honorable Bob Walker

Coordinator of The Heritage Foundation's Moscow Office