Will the American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI) Work?

The Very Large Array (VLA) near Socorro, NMThe financial meltdown and struggling markets have renewed the need to catalyze innovation through science and technology policy. For example, John Doerr, the internationally recognized partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, has remarked that Obama needs to “kick-start a huge amount of innovation and research in energy”. At the same time, Doerr notes that the new administration needs to invest more in high-tech education, solve the visa bottleneck problem for highly skilled workers in technology and R&D, and take a good look at the proportion of funds going to research in various areas. He gives the example that approximately $1B a year is spent on energy research, while $32B is invested in health care.

The American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI; 3.95MB), introduced by President Bush in his 2006 State of the Union Address, was signed into law as the America COMPETES Act (Public Law 110-69) to help make this happen. The essence of the ACI is that it proposes to increase educational programs and double the funding for basic research in physical sciences and engineering (at NIST, the DOE Office of Science, and the National Science Foundation) over a ten-year period. For example, for NSF the ACI proposed a funding boost from $6.02B in 2007 to $11.16B in 2016 (in 2007 dollars). A summary of the ACI from the Office of Science & Technology Policy is also available. Despite its noble intentions, Congress failed to deliver on the promise of funding in the first year. A limited boost was evident by the FY 2009 budget, but the increase is at risk due to the Continuing Resolution through 3/6/09 which could potentially extend through the full fiscal year – and wipe out the promised increase yet again.

But throwing money at the problem might be oh-so-Bush-Administration, as Jonathan Moreno suggests in his Science Progress interview with Caroline Wagner, author of The New Invisible College.

According to Wagner, the concept of researchers collaborating across academic and national boundaries started in the 17th century. Although this practice continues today, there is now a growing chasm between researchers in developing countries and their communities – and it can be argued that a similar gap might exist even in more advanced economies:

We need to rethink science. We tended to think of science as the trip to the moon, as the AIDS vaccine. These are great things and I love them too. The difference is now, as opposed to previous periods, is that we have this cadre of knowledge that we can’t lose it. It’s so critical to our potential as a civilization. We have this knowledge. We can use it, if we can make it available so that people can solve problems locally.

One of the great unsung stories of science success is the agricultural extension service in the United States. It is a case where local loops and experimentation, along with integrated learning, diffused information over time. This is a beautiful example, and shouldn’t be lost on us so that we’re focused on questions like “are we funding the greatest physics ever?” Let’s look at funding that answers the question, “how do we make individual people’s lives better?”

I’ll cover my “Two Pronged Approach to the New American Competitiveness” tomorrow. Hint: it requires focusing on the fundamental definitions of technology and innovation. By going back to first principles, we may be able to establish a policy recipe for sustainability and innovation in one broad brush.

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