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Office of Science of Technology Policy

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As experts seek explanations for America's record-breaking performance in the current world economy, it is tempting to credit our bountiful natural resources and our diverse, hardworking population. But many other countries — and even our own ancestors — have enjoyed similar resources without producing an economic boom su ch as the United States achieved in the late 20th century. The credit for our recent success really goes to the powerful system we have generated to create new knowledge and develop it into technologies that drive our economy, guarantee our national security, and improve our health and quality of life.

This report explores some of the remarkable, tangible benefits to our nation from the sustained funding of research and development (R&D). The President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) prepared this report in response to Vice President Gore's request. The Vice President called for a new compact between our scientific community and our government — one that would emphasize support for fundamental science and a shared responsibility to shape our breakthroughs into progress. The Vice President turned to PCAST for help in illuminating the benefits of our past and present investments in science and technology.

The technologies covered here — those dealing with information, global positioning, biotechnology, food, the environment, and manufacturing — illustrate how much we have come to rely on technology and take it for granted in our everyday lives. But the marvels of today are really the fruits of research seeds planted decades ago — investments that have not only given us new technologies, but have also helped educate generations of engineers and scientists who now form an essential component of our modern workforce. The very fact that these advances required decades of investment stands as a warning against complacency in our future investment strategy. As the Vice President has noted, the government and the private sector must work together to ensure that today's investments in research and development are sufficient to yield similar p ayoffs to society in the 21st century. Close cooperation with our international partners is also crucial to the success of this venture, since scientific breakthroughs occur with no regard for national borders.

Research Pays Economic Dividends

The President's Council of Economic Advisors and other economists have pointed out the high rates of return on investments in research and development. This past spring, Federal Res erve Chairman Alan Greenspan repeatedly cited an unexpected leap in technology as primarily responsible for the nation's record-breaking economic performance. In particular, a technology-based surge in productivity appears to be contributing substantially to our economic success.

This report only hints at the many non-economic benefits that result from investments in science and technology. Our military strength — built on a foundati on of high technology — has enabled the United States to keep America safe from aggression, defend our allies, and foster democracies across the globe. New technologies also improve the quality of our lives. Medical research in pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, and medical devices promises us a healthier life. Environmental research offers cleaner air, water, and soil through better monitoring, prevention, and remediation technologies. Advanced monit oring and forecasting technologies — from satellites to simulation — help save lives and minimize property damage caused by hurricanes, blizzards, and other severe weather.

Agricultural research yields a cornucopia of safer, healthier, and tastier food products. Automobile research leads to cars that are safer, cleaner, more energy-efficient, and more intelligent. Aeronautical technology makes air travel safer. Energy research delivers cleaner fuels and reduces American dependence on foreign resources. Information and telecommunications technologies enable instantaneous communications across the globe

PCAST Investment Principles

As it advises the President, PCAST supports a steady funding stream for scientific and technological advances to help ensure prosperity and well-being for our children and grandchildren. The following principles — first adopted by PCAST in 1995 to guide the nation's investment in science and technology — remain vital to our nation's success in the 21st century.

  • Science and technology are major determinants of the American economy and quality of life.
  • Public support of science and technology is an investment in the future.
  • Education and training are crucial to America's future.
  • The Federal government should continue to support strong research institutions and infrastructure.
  • The Federal investment in science and technology must support a diverse portfolio of research, including both basic and applied science.
  • Stability of funding is essential.

Federal investment played an important role in the development of all the technologies described in this report — particularly in cases where the results of research w ere not clear at the outset. For example, when Federal funding began for the forerunners of today's Internet, no one knew what computer networking could accomplish — or how far and how quickly it would spread. The same is true of the Federal role in the development of lasers and global positioning systems. All of these investments, made because the research was fundamentally important and was needed to fulfill government agency missions, eventually changed the way businesses and governments operate and enhanced our daily lives.

The Federal government also plays a vital role in ensuring the scientific and technical literacy of the U.S. population. In our rapidly changing economy, continual learning must become a way of life. All Americans need a solid education in science, mathematics, and technology to gain the skills necessary to participate in tomorrow's workforce, to stay informed about issues, and to understand our increasingly complex world. Additional challenges for education today include a rapidly diversifying population, growing international commerce and cultural influences, an information technology revolution, and a heightened pace of change in the workplace. The Federal government, in partnerships with the states, business and industry, and academic institutions, has undertaken an ambitious agenda to foster lifelong learning — from K-12 through undergraduate and graduate school, and on to workplace training. To fulfill this task, we must employ the best educational strategies, based on solid research.

The members of PCAST, closely linked to all the stakeholders in the national and international science and technology enterprise, represent a network of advice and support that contributed greatly to this report. There is much to admire in the mult iple reports issued by various stakeholders in the past few years calling for a renewed commitment to investment in science and technology. This report illustrates some of the payoffs from those investments and underscores the need for sustained and cooperative support in the 21st century to avoid the dangers and seize the opportunities.

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