"Science has helped transform the United States into the most productive nation in the world . . . and science will change our lives in the century ahead even more than it has changed them in the 100 years just passed."
While that statement may sound like the words of Bill Gates, Vice-President Al Gore, Norman Augustine, or any other modern champion of science and technology, it was actually uttered more than 50 years ago by President Harry S. Truman to the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Though Truman's words were prescient, he could not have imagined the blinding speed of technology's advance in the Information Age, nor how large a role the U.S. government would play in that advance.
Federal support of scientific research, fueled in part by the Cold War, put men on the moon and a rover on Mars, and gave birth to the Internet and the Information Age. Perhaps more important, this investment in technology contributed to worker productivity and an improved standard of living in the United States.
By the early 1990s, however, recession, spiraling budget deficits, and the end of the Cold War had combined to reduce funding for science and technology research. Today, with a growing economy, projected budget surpluses, and increased political tension in several global regions, the question before Congress is: Will the federal government continue to support investment in science and technology, as Truman encouraged so long ago? The answer appears to be a qualified "yes."
From the beginning of the 105th Congress in January 1997, legislators took steps to ensure future investment in science and technology. The first important move was House Speaker Newt Gingrich's request that the House Science Committee review and recommend changes in current national science policy. The resultant Science Policy Study, approved in October, will guide Congress in determining spending priorities, and also inform Congress about matters as diverse as the connection between basic and applied research, the value of large-scale scientific projects, and the U.S. economy's increasing reliance on technology-based industries spawned by scientific research.
Societies Speak Up
Prior to the Unified Statement and the Gramm/Lieberman bill, increasing investment in science and technology research had not been a high priority for Congress, but the resulting discussion did serve to increase support and visibility for the issues. Shortly after the demise of S. 1305, Senators Bill Frist (R-TN) and John Rockefeller (D-WV) introduced follow-on bill S. 2217.
Known as the Federal Research Investment Act of 1998, S. 2217 would authorize doubling federal spending on non-defense research to roughly $67.9 billion over the next 12 years, and specifies an annual 2.5 percent above inflation increase in federal funding of scientific and pre-competitive engineering research. The new bill, approved by the Senate in October, is considered more realistic than Gramm/Lieberman. At press time, the bill still had a chance of becoming law before the 105th Congress adjourned at the end of the year.
By being involved in the legislative process, engineering societies can and do influence decisions to invest in our nation's future. The Frist/Rockefeller bill appears to be getting serious consideration, but it is far from a sure thing and will require continued support. Communicating with our elected leaders is the only way to ensure that the next 50 years of technological advancement is as dramatic as the last.
Don Davis is ASEE's public affairs associate.