PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
campaign 2000
Cool Technologies, Hot Politics

by Kenneth T. Walsh

Kenneth T. WalshIn an embarrassing burst of self-congratulation, Vice President Al Gore claimed  last March that he helped create the Internet while he was a member of Congress. It turned out that he did no such thing; the Pentagon actually created the information network that became the forerunner of the Internet in 1969, when Gore was only 21 years old—and nearly a decade before he was first elected to the House of Representatives.

But such hyperbole aside, Gore has played an important role over the years in advocating expanded federal funding for science and technology, including what he calls "the information superhighway." He is on one side of a growing political debate over the future of such funding.

Gore and many Democrats favor more federal activism to help U.S. businesses conduct the research necessary to keep up with high-tech developments and remain competitive globally. Others, especially Republican leaders in the House, oppose any growth in Washington's involvement and argue that the private sector is perfectly well-equipped to keep America No. 1 in science and technology.

The advocates of Washington's role make powerful arguments. D. Allan Bromley, science adviser to President George Bush and now Sterling Professor of Sciences and dean of engineering at Yale University, wrote recently that, "Our awesome economic success can be traced directly to our past investments in science." Bromley argues that Congress has been unwisely cutting federal spending for science—in areas such as NASA and the National Science Foundation—and, as a result, "compromises our nation's economic and social progress."

"Federal investments in science pay off—they produce cutting-edge ideas and a highly skilled workforce. The ideas and personnel then feed into high-tech industries to drive the U.S. economy,"Bromley adds. Advocates of increased federal spending point out that Washington's investments in university research spawned many specific business ventures that Americans now take for granted and that are powerful engines for economic growth, including the laser and fiber-optic cable industries and the overall telecommunications industry.

Gore, the Democratic presidential front-runner, agrees. And he has been unveiling a stream of high-tech initiatives designed to burnish his image as the most futuristic candidate in the 2000 race. He has called for tax cuts for businesses that invest in high-tech research and has promised that a Gore administration would "invest aggressively" in the creation of information-age jobs. He wants to double federal spending on information technology over five years, raising it to about $3 billion, and he has pledged to oppose any international tariffs on Internet commerce.

For his part, Texas Governor George W. Bush, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, has his own science and technology agenda, although it has so far been considerably vaguer than Gore's and, in keeping with his conservative philosophy, involves much less government activism.

He has supported legislation to reduce the liability of the computer industry to lawsuits related to the Year 2000 computer problem, which the governor calls "the biggest potential ambulance chase in the millennium." Bush also supports allowing American companies to sell more of their sensitive technology overseas when such products are available from their foreign competitors. And he favors changing the immigration laws so U.S. technology companies can hire foreigners to relieve potential shortages of software technicians, computer engineers, and other highly skilled workers.

On Capitol Hill, the fate of the National Institute of Standards and Technology has become a flashpoint for the overall debate. Founded a century ago to help businesses and individuals calibrate scales and gauges, NIST is now attempting to subsidize high-tech business research as never before. President Clinton is a strong backer of NIST's $200 million advanced technology program, under which grants are made to companies trying to develop commercial high-tech ventures in electronics, biotechnology, and other areas, and Gore is among the program's biggest supporters.

Yet House Republican leaders, including Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich of Ohio, condemn such initiatives as "corporate welfare" that lets Washington bureaucrats decide which businesses to help rather than relying on the free market. The conservatives argue that worthwhile commercial research ventures should get funding from private sources, not Uncle Sam, and that such funding is readily available for promising projects.

They have a point. A recent Wall Street Journal analysis, for example, found that the economy is so strong and private research so pervasive that "NIST's ability to affect the economy—for good or ill—is minimal. NIST backers can't claim that technology grants are powering the new economy; there are too few grants and they haven't yet produced marketable products. And NIST detractors can't claim government funding is elbowing out private investors; venture capital and industrial R&D budgets are soaring. The program has become largely irrelevant economically."

These struggles illustrate just how important science and technology issues have become in the national debate. And clearly, the winner of the fight over Washington's role in encouraging science and technology won't be decided until after Election Day next November.


Kenneth T. Walsh is the senior White House correspondent
U.S. News & World Report.