The Importance of Science and Technology to America's Future

By Senator Bill Frist, M.D.

Senator Bill Frist, M.D.As a physician and surgeon, I've had the opportunity to witness everyday the remarkable difference that medical science and technology make in people's lives. In just the relatively short time I've been practicing medicine, less than 20 years, I've seen how the products of medical research and development - lasers, mechanical cardiac assist devices, mechanical valves, automatic internal defibrillators - have not only saved lives, but have vastly improved the quality of hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

As a physician, I can envision a future in which science and technology will expand the current frontier of medical knowledge. Armed with this new knowledge, we will identify the causes, and eliminate most of the effects of the diseases that now plague mankind. As a Senator, I can envision the difference that science and technology will make in the life and health of our citizens.

Science and technology have shaped our world in many ways. We've put men into space and looked into the farthest corners of the known universe. We've broken the code of the human genome and begun to dismantle previously incurable disease. We've created a virtual world and a whole new realm called cyberspace. Yet, technology also surrounds us in millions of little ways we no longer even notice. From computers and cellular phones, to stop lights, grocery store checkouts, and microwaves: in a million ways technology makes our lives run smoother and faster.

Today's world runs on technology, and through its investment in research and development (R&D), the federal government has played a significant role in its expansion. In fact, more than 56 percent of all basic research is produced with federal funds.

Much of our economy runs on technology as well. Half of all U.S. economic growth is the result of our technical progress. Technology helps provide new goods and services, new jobs and new capital - even whole new industries.

Without a doubt, technology is the principal driving force behind our long-term economic growth and our rising standard of living. In fact, according to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), technology is the single most important factor in sustained economic growth. The performance of U.S. business and its contribution to economic growth is directly linked to the use of technology. As cited in a study conducted by the Department of Commerce, manufacturing businesses that used eight or more advanced technologies grew 14.4 percent more than plants that used none. Production wages were more than 14 percent higher.

Clearly, America's investment in science and technology must continue. The two central questions Congress must answer are: 1) will science and technology continue to be as great a congressional priority in the future as it has been in the past; and 2) will the kind of financial investment necessary to sustain future progress be possible in light of our other growing financial commitments?

In 1965, mandatory federal spending on entitlements and interest on the debt accounted for 30 percent of the federal budget. Fully 70 percent went toward discretionary programs - research, education, roads, bridges, national parks, and national defense.

Today, just 30 years later, that ratio has been almost completely reversed: Sixty-seven percent of the budget is spent on mandatory programs and interest on the debt; leaving only 33 percent for everything else, including research. In fact, total R&D spending today as a percentage of GDP is just 0.75 percent - as compared to 2.2 percent in the mid-1960s when superpower rivalry and the race to space fueled a national commitment to science and technology. As the baby boom generation begins to retire and the discretionary portion of the budget shrinks even further, this situation will only grow worse.

Thus, we have both the long-term problem of addressing the ever-increasing level of mandatory spending and the near-term challenge of apportioning the ever-dwindling amount of discretionary funding.

This increased dependency on technology and decreased fiscal flexibility has created a problem too obvious to ignore. Not all deserving programs can be funded, and not all authorized programs can be fully implemented. In other words, the luxury of fully funding science and technology programs across the board has long since passed. We must set priorities.

I believe that Congress must reaffirm our national commitment to science and technology and redouble its efforts to ensure that funding is not only maintained, but increased. I also believe that funding levels alone are not the answer. What we really need is a strategy for the future - a vision that not only provides adequate levels of funding, but ensures that funding is both responsible and sustainable over the long term.

We can do that by establishing a set of guiding principles that will enable Congress to consistently ask the right questions about each competing technology program; focus on that program's effectiveness and appropriateness for federal funding; and most importantly, make the hard choices about which programs deserve to be funded and which do not. What are these guiding principles?

First, federal R&D programs must be good science. They must be focused, not duplicative, and peer-reviewed. Because there is strength in diversity, they must support both knowledge-driven science and mission-driven science requirements. Second, programs must be fiscally accountable. Third, they should achieve their aims with measurable results. Finally, federal policy must be applied consistently across the entire spectrum of federal research agencies. High quality, productive research programs must be encouraged regardless of where they are located.

Accompanying the four first principles, are four corollaries: 1) government must create a flow of technology from research through commercialization, so that promising technology is not lost in a bureaucratic maze; 2) it must foster a close relationship between research and education and find ways to extend the excellence of our university system to primary and secondary institutions; 3) we must encourage the revolutionary innovation taking place at the overlap by providing opportunities for interdisciplinary projects and fostering collaboration across fields of research; and 4) we must facilitate the creation of partnerships, in effect creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

These first principles and their four corollaries provide a framework that will guide the creation of new, federally funded research and development programs, and validate existing ones. Taken together, they will create a powerful method for elevating the debate by increasing Congress' ability to focus on the important issues, decreasing the likelihood that it will get sidetracked on politically-charged technicalities, and ensuring that federal R&D programs are consistent and effective. They will also help us establish a consistent set of national goals and a vision for the future.

On June 25th, Senator Rockefeller and I introduced the Federal Research Investment Act, a bipartisan bill which sets us on the path to accomplishing all of these goals.

The act elevates Congress' commitment to federally-funded research and development by doubling the aggregate amount of civilian R&D spending over a 12-year period. It establishes the set of guiding principles outlined above. It requires the president to submit, as part of his annual budget, a detailed report on how the administration will meet congressional funding goals.

It also lays a solid foundation for evaluating both current and future programs by directing the Office of Science and Technology Policy to commission the National Academy of Sciences to develop methods for evaluating federally-funded research.

As a physician, a scientist and a Senator, I believe it is time to get America refocused on the importance of science. As a Congress and as a nation, we must reaffirm our national commitment to science and technology and double our efforts to increase funding as America moves into the next century. The economic future of our Nation and our leadership position in the world depend on it.

Bill Frist is serving his first term as a Republican Senator from Tennessee. He is chairman of the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin

August/September 1998 (Volume 7, Number 8)

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1998 Fall Meeting Madness
APS Congressional Fellowship Awarded
APS Sponsors Mass Media Fellows
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APS Task Force Suggests "Physics Today" Changes
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