ASEE PRISM - October 2000
campaign 2000
The Nerd Factor

By Kenneth T. Walsh

Kenneth T. Walsh'I've been spending a lot of time getting in touch with my inner nerd," President Clinton said at the California Institute of Technology recently, as he discussed his newfound commitment to science and high-tech.

Actually, his interest in the subject was long overdue. When he campaigned for the White House in 1992, Clinton promised to focus on the economy "like a laser beam''--but it took him nearly seven years to realize that the laser beam itself, as a symbol of new and developing technologies, is a major ingredient in national prosperity.

Now he's winnillustration by Terry Bolesing plaudits from scientists and high-tech entrepreneurs for setting a new goal: maintaining total spending for research and development at a minimum of three percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, up from about 2.8 percent in 1999. Clinton, liberated by the vast projected federal budget surpluses, also has proposed a $2.6 billion spending increase for basic research and technology for fiscal 2001. That request to Congress includes $1 billion for biomedical research, $497 million for nanotechnology aimed at miniaturizing technologies in unprecedented ways, and a $675 million increase for the National Science Foundation, which would increase the total NSF budget by 17 percent, up to $4.6 billion for the 2001 fiscal year. Congress may go along with most of Clinton's proposals, partly because of estimates from Neal Lane, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and others that technology research has generated about a third of the country's economic growth in recent years.

Yet all this came after a long stretch of White House inattention. The National Academy of Sciences, for example, estimates that federal support for electrical engineering alone declined by one-third in the mid-1990s. The question now is whether Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore get the message. "For the good of the country, the next president, whoever he is, will need to pick up where President Clinton left off,'' says Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.

There are some positive signs. R&D won't be a rallying cry in the campaign this fall, since most voters are more interested in issues such as health care and Social Security and the character of the candidates. But Gore in particular seems committed to encouraging science and technology through R&D spending.

The vice president, a longtime champion of technology (who played an important role in persuading Clinton to share his views), agrees with the National Research Council that there is a "wide consensus that U.S. economic growth and scientific preeminence depend on maintaining and possibly increasing the share of GDP devoted to R&D.'' The council reports that "Movement in recent decades toward that goal has been achieved through growing private rather than public investment.'' Yet basic research receives its principal support from public sources, while privately sponsored R&D emphasizes applied research and development. Continued growth of basic research, the council says, will "ensure a pipeline of new knowledge accessible to future generations.'' That means there is a compelling need for more money from the government.

Gore aides don't give numbers, but they say he will do better than Clinton, probably by proposing considerable increases across the board in federal support for R&D, at least as long as the government is running a huge surplus. He has promised to "double the investment in information technology research over the next five years," and favors increasing investment in biomedical research and information technology "so that their convergence can deliver benefits from completing the human genome effort,'' which involves mapping the genetic code for life.

Gore is also supporting not only a permanent R&D tax credit but a permanent "research and experimentation tax credit,'' not subject to annual debates over the current tax credit, so companies can plan better for the future. And he pledges to expand this new R&D credit so small businesses can take better advantage of it by making the credit partially refundable.

For his part, Bush also wants to make the R&D tax credit permanent, and he supports increasing defense R&D spending by at least $20 billion from fiscal 2002 to 2006. He would also direct the defense secretary to earmark at least 20 percent of the total procurement budget for "acquisitions programs that propel America generations ahead in military technology.'' He points to his record as governor of Texas, where he won approval for a research and development tax credit to help the state attract jobs.

If the economy holds up, it looks like R&D has a bright future. Both Bush and Gore, it seems, have already discovered their inner nerds.

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

 

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