Post Cold War Science and Technology Policy

"For the past half century, federal science and technology policieshave been strongly influenced by two major forces: the promise of fundamental scientific research, and the demands of the Cold War. During recent decades, a series of political and technological revolutions have significantly changed the context in which science and technology policy is made." - Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (NAS)
The story reads the same everywhere you look. Laboratories, universities, agencies and businesses are scrambling to retrench as the federal government demobilizes from its Cold War posture and remobilizes for global economic competitiveness. Dual Use, strategic investment, collaboration and consortia have become the buzz words of US S&T policy. And, perhaps more importantly, massive government funds are being redirected.

Scientists however, wonder whether we are fixing something that isn't broken. Perhaps, some argue for example, government money would be better spent helping industry refine process technologies so that companies could better create products from the knowledge pool which the government would continue to fill as always. Why not leave basic R&D funding alone? The government's place is not the market! The scientific social contract which has guided S&T policy for the last fifty years, they argue, should be upheld for the same reasons Vannevar Bush championed it in the first place.

Nevertheless, In Science in the National Interest, Clinton and Gore make it clear that the government will be taking a new role in S&T development and that the fifty year old contract is being renegotiated.


In understanding the renegotiation of the social contract it is important to identify the structural changes relevant to the relationship between science and government. Specifically, we must determine why the contract is anachronistic and what changes are mandated by the new environment. Two changes bound such a discussion; ideologic and economic.

Firstly there has been a shift in social ideology. One of the foundations of the Cold War scientific social contract was marked by an underlying faith in Science and Technology. On the one hand, society owed much to S&T which had helped the US come out strong in both World War Two and in the following decades. Technology, in the form of atomic energy, cryptography, and general military state-of-the-art for example, was clearly one of our strongest assets holding the communist threat in check. On the other hand, Science represented a new hope for society-the final frontier from which resources could be extracted to solve a multitude of social dilemmas from world hunger to curing disease to harnessing energy.

However, the golden cloud had its silver lining. As the competitiveness era coalesced, science began falling from its pedestal. Mission programs like the SSC and SDI had eaten up billions and proved of little benefit to society. Meanwhile, social problems like homelessness, urban violence, and education had not only not been solved but had gotten worse. Science, having failed to solve all of societies problems significantly lost its glamour. Finally, reports of corruption and fraud tarnished the image of the kindly scientist in a curiosity-driven search for knowledge. In the end, as Schmitt and other have noted, scientists began to look like just another specialized, corruptible, and self interested interest group.

Besides the ideological shift, S&T policy has been effected by the changing economic environment. With the warming of American-Soviet relations there was no longer a rationale for maintaining high levels of military R&D spending. Rather, national economic security concerns began to be primary. Firstly, America faced a huge national debt which had accumulated during the Cold War. The 1992 presidential elections ("the economy stupid") showed that the economy was the primary concern of Americans. Every level of the government was a potential source of savings. Any non-cost effective program, including science programs, faced the chopping block.

Meanwhile our economic competitors like Japan and Germany had closed much of the economic gap which had separated them and us and further, they seemed to be playing by new rules. Julian Szekely (Page 12) notes that "a major cause of friction between the U.S. and Japan is the balance-of-trade deficit, on the order of $50 billion per annum..."

Given the dramatic changes in public sentiment and in the economic landscape, it became clear that we had to tighten our belts and make the money that we had go a long way. Contemporary S&T policy reflects the needs of the government to adapt to these new economic demands. Hence, the present administration has had to renegotiate the scientific social contract. In Science in the National Interest, Clinton and Gore do just that.

Renegotiating the Social Contract

In Science in the National Interest Clinton and Gore have spelled out the terms of the new social contract for science. The government, they explain, will continue its support of scientific training and development provided that researchers are more responsive to national economic goals. To make sure that researchers do this, the government will attempt to invest in economically relevant ways. Such investment strategy is based on three foundations: Enhancing the connections between fundamental research and national goals, stimulating partnerships that promote investments in fundamental science and engineering and educating new scientists and the public.

The most dramatic contract renegotiation is of course the government stipulation that science actually produces an economic payoff. This is the most controversial renegotiation because it touches to the heart of one of sciences most sacred tradition: curiosity-driven research. Scientists argue that if they are forced to pigeon hole their talent, they will not effectively push the margins of science. Science, like an organism, must be free to grow. If it is clipped and caged, it will die. On a more practical level, they argue that curiosity driven research is necessary because one never knows where the next new groundbreaking research will come from. If scientists are prevented from exploring "non-economically relevant" zones, the world may be missing out on crucial discoveries that would be far more economically relevant than those they were forced to study.

However, as Deborah Shapely points out, it is one thing to be idealistic, it is another thing to be idiotic. Both sides must compromise because both sides have points to be made. What good is a social contract for scientists, she argues, if society is destitute. On the other hand, what good is scientific spending if the scientists are hamstringed and cannot produce. Scientists must realize that they are only a part of the whole society and have respect for the other parts. Politicians must understand that as parts of the whole, the scientists work in special ways and, as such, need their own special environment if they are to produce.

The second focus of the Clinton/Gore administration regards enhancing connections between scientists and industry. This is of course not in itself antithetical to the traditional contract but is at least an amendment. This point relates to the sharing of information between all levels of society. The new high tech world is based on speed, complexity and adaptation. We can only address such needs by integrating at all levels. Hence, scientists must share their knowledge and better forms of infrastructure must be developed to share that knowledge. Further, the strengthening of bonds between industry and education will help support directed research with industrial ends...or at least make industry better able to utilize and contribute to the knowledge pool

Finally, Clinton and Gore continue the tradition of government sponsorship of education.

There is no change here. Clinton and Gore uphold the basic tenet of the Bush contract. They assure the community that the government will use its monetary and policy power to continue to infuse the sciences with new blood and train the populace to be better able to utilizes new technologies and comprehend new sciences.


It is clear that, though the Clinton administration has updated much of the traditional scientific social contract for new environments, it has also renegotiated. Under the terms of the new contract, scientists will be held accountable by society. Science will undoubtably be economically relevant in the future. But, given the legitimate concerns of scientists, can we hope to have a healthy research system as well as a healthy economy? In her article, "Clintonizing Science Policy," Deborah Shapely discusses the reconciliation of politicians and scientists. Science can still move forward and basic research will still continue, she argues, but scientists must realize that they are part of a greater culture which must work as a whole if it is to adapt and survive. So long as society and scientists are willing to compromise and learn, the United States is in a good position for growth.

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