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R&D in Search of Policy

David Morrison

Investing in Innovation: Creating a Research and Innovation Policy that Works. Lewis M. Branscomb and James H. Keller, eds. 516 pp. The MIT Press, 1998. $35.

An ideological struggle continues between policymakers who believe that the market alone is sufficient to keep American industry innovative and others convinced that government must offer industry expanded research support to meet global competition. Into this maelstrom, the Clinton-Gore administration has thrust its efforts to build economic strength and spur growth through technology. In the fall of 1996, experts engaged in various facets of research and policy implementation were assembled for a nonpartisan examination of the administration's first-term experience with technology policy. Through this book, Branscomb, Keller and their colleagues have captured the essence of the debate, cited successes and weaknesses in various approaches and enlightened the discussion on the policies needed to sustain our national prosperity through investment in science, engineering and education.

They explore the changing environment for technology policy, addressing the big picture and providing insights on the key questions of technology and economic growth and appropriate measures of technology-policy effectiveness. Two important concepts not commonly associated with federal investments in innovation emerge. First, research that is fundamental and pre-competitive presents opportunities for federal investment. Thus, what the nation needs is not a "technology policy" to go with its science policy, but a more broadly defined "research policy" that provides knowledge and skills to support and promote innovation. The second concept addresses the role of social capital—that is, the features of social organization, such as networks, norms and trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit in innovation and technology policy. Strengthening innovation may lie as much in increasing the social capital of our production sectors as in direct investments in science and technology.

Much of the book is devoted to seven specific technology programs encompassing a wide range of technologies and involving a number of federal agencies and industrial sectors. These include the Advanced Technology Program, the Technology Reinvestment Project and successor, the Dual-Use Applications Program, the Small Business Innovation Research Program, Cooperative Research and Development Agreements, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Environmental Technology Initiative. The authors document successful elements and barriers encountered and the challenges facing policy makers for future investments. A section that decries the minimal attention and support energy R&D has received from the federal government in recent years presents the most compelling arguments for federal support that I have read anywhere.

The authors also explore the history of the Administration's information infrastructure initiatives, which illustrate the importance of using a broad spectrum of policy tools in a coordinated manner to enhance national innovative capability and productivity. A review of university-industry cooperation and its expected returns to the U.S. economy leads to a suggestion of policy measures designed both to preserve the strengths of the university system and to benefit technological advance and economic growth. Industry is the key player in technological progress, and a key message of this book is that differences among industry sectors must be taken into account.

Ultimately, Branscomb and Keller articulate a set of six high-level principles for supporting the development of research and innovation. These principles are intended to provide a politically robust platform on which policy development can be based. They are: encourage private innovation; emphasize basic technological research; facilitate access to new and old technologies; use all relevant policy tools, not just R&D; leverage globalization of innovation; and improve government effectiveness in policy development.

Although they present no roadmap for successful research-policy development, the authors articulate principles that define the boundaries and elements of this complex topic. This is worthwhile reading for those engaged in research, education and technology or research policy.—David L. Morrison, Nuclear Engineering, North Carolina State University

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