More on beyond the Endless Frontier Act

In an earlier posting I discussed the proposed Endless Frontier Act and  counterproposal “Improving the Endless Frontier Act” (by Windham, Hill, and Cheney) recently published in Issues in Science and Technology. That issue also contained three other articles on the same topic.

One of those is a direct defense of the Endless Frontier Act: “To Compete with China, America Needs the Endless Frontier Act.” In it, MIT President Rafael L. Reif argues that:

We need to fill the gap in the nation’s research system that opened with the disappearance of institutions such as Bell Labs, which did pathbreaking research that resulted in revolutionary technologies such as the transistor. And we also need to accelerate the movement of technological advances into the marketplace.

He agrees that other mechanisms, such as DARPA-like entities, would be useful (a key argument of Windham, Hill, and Cheney). But the heart of his argument is the need for “a new Technology Directorate at the National Science Foundation to fund use-inspired basic research, primarily at universities, focused on advancing key technology areas.”

He does acknowledge the point I raised about existing NSF programs:

Some current NSF programs do nod in the direction of technology development, and those efforts could remain in the existing directorates. They are no substitute for a new directorate that would have the sole purpose of fostering basic research explicitly to advance specific technological solutions, whether those solutions relate to artificial intelligence, climate change, or cyber security.

The key concepts here are basic research and university-based. In contrast to the argument of Windham, Hill, and Cheney, Reif believes that university-based, use-inspired basic research is the best the way to plug what he refers to as the Bell Labs gap.

Melissa Flagg and Paul Harris, “How to Lead Innovation in a Changed World,” disagree. They argue that the Endless Frontier Act is based on science and technology system that no longer exists.

When [Vannevar] Bush called on government to take the lead [in The Endless Frontier], industry and philanthropic spending were declining, but today the opposite is the case. …  Industry R&D now accounts for the largest portion (70% in 2018) of national spending. Even with an increase in federal government investment, it is unlikely that this would change.

Furthermore, in recent decades, the nature of industry R&D and its relationship with government has transformed in ways Bush wouldn’t recognize. … The tech companies have created their own ecosystems of science collaboration, talent pipelines with universities, and innovation centers offshore.  …

The globalized nature of the leading US technology companies highlights how the broader science and technology system has changed. Over just the past 20 years, global investment in S&T has tripled to over $2.2 trillion. The United States now accounts for just over 25% of the global total, with Chinese science having grown quickly to an almost equivalent size. But that leaves half of global science and technology made up by a diverse group of countries led by Japan, Germany, South Korea, India, France, and the United Kingdom.

They argue that:

US S&T policy must now progress from its successful postwar framework to a new framework fit for the twenty-first century. Without this, future policy interventions run the risk of wasting scarce resources, or worse, reinforcing existing problems and inequalities. The nation needs more systematic analysis of all the different inputs for science and technology—funding, yes, but also human capital, infrastructure, and the policy and regulatory framework—and new approaches to optimizing these in what is a very different environment.

Thus, while Reif argues that the Endless Frontier Act is needed because it goes beyond “just doing more of the same,” Flagg and Harris argue that the Act is exactly doing more of the same.

Greg Tassey takes a different tack in “The Endless Frontier Act Could Foster Technology Job Growth Across the United States.” Tassey begins by supporting the legislation.  But by the fourth paragraph, he has gone beyond the Act and points out a major area of needed improvement:

To be truly successful, however, the new measure must include a “master recipe” or conceptual model of the major technical, organizational, and institutional elements necessary to create an effective innovation hub. Modern technology evolves through a series of research and development phases, production steps, and marketing efforts—all of which require some degree of public input. Each set of suppliers—representing different tiers in the high-tech supply chain—requires special technology, capital, labor, and infrastructure assets. These resources, in turn, are applied at different phases of the development life cycle—each with its own needs for public technical infrastructure support

Thus, the proposed legislation should identify the full set of institutions that will support both a technology’s evolution and its subsequent production and commercialization, as well as a policy mechanism for evaluating and analyzing those roles. The range and complexity of these assets is varied, and therefore must be systematically analyzed in terms of the policy tools that should be incorporated in the legislation.

The rest of the article is a tour de force of what a national Technology-Based Economic Development (TBED) policy would look like. Tassey, a former Chief Economist at NIST and a leading expert on, has written much over the years on the need for and the vision of an American technology and manufacturing policy. This article is a good summary of the latest thinking on technology policy.

These four articles (the three discussed above and the one on which I discussed before) agree on one point: we need to rethink and update our S&T policies. As Rafael Reif stated, “Just doing more of the same will not get us where we need to be.”

What that means is unclear. Let’s continue to have the debate on where we need to be and how to get there. My hope is that the Endless Frontier Act will stimulate that debate. My concern is that in the rush to do something, it will short-circuit the debate. And that would be a terrible missed opportunity.

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