Science And Technology Policy And The Democratic Convention

Now it’s the Democrats’ turn to gather for their convention in Charlotte and one element of the platform in common with basic Republican philosophy is the case for government funding of basic science.

The Democrats are much more ambitious, however, in calls for the funding of “investment” beyond basic science. The word “investment,” in fact, appears 40 times in the just-released 2012 Democratic National Platform.

Indeed most agree with the notion that such a basic science policy is “unimpeachable,” as Fareed Zakaria’s, “How Government Funding of Science Rewards U.S. Taxpayers,” put it in the The Washington Post.

But needless problems arise when an institution with the power to tax and compel gets overly involved in the very production of knowledge itself.

Problems include seducing industry with funds, inviting cronyism, and federal “steering” when Washington has no business doing so.

The alternative “Platform” is creating a tax and regulatory environment favorable for all, not the favored few, to engage in scientific knowledge and wealth creation, potentially on scales far beyond those of today.

Today, we see examples of artificially created conflicts rooted in governmental science and tech policy:

  • Over the fundamental merit of basic vs. applied research (a false split in many ways).
  • Over relative impacts of private vs. public funding on discovery, knowledge creation and well-being.
  • Over the alleged objectivity of government vs. “industry” science, and the improper disdain for industry science in the marketplace of ideas that public funding abets.
  • Over the right to not fund research programs with which one disagrees or is indifferent toward.

Government funding can also create unnecessary confusions over the ownership or intellectual property status of federally funded discoveries (for example does the Genome belong in the public domain, or should components and spinoffs be patentable?)

New scientific discoveries and the technologies can often be risky; markets must discipline those risks with new insurance, liability dictates and other instruments and institutions that are not automatic.

Creating a regulatory agency is not a substitute for this process. Governments tend to force subsidized technologies on the public via indemnifying the producer, as in nuclear power and homeland security technologies — and likely soon, cybersecurity technologies.

The private sector’s role in science and technology policy needs greater clarification by both parties. Teflon, Tang and Velcro were not NASA spinoffs, as it turns out (OK, I’ll allow that memory foam was). The Wright Brothers needed to research propellers in a bicycle shop that doubled as a state of the art aeronautics lab; the War Department’s funding of the Aerodrome was a diversion.

As for Internet technology, Democrats just this weekend reiterated support for net neutrality, strong cybersecurity laws, more wireless spectrum and intellectual property protection.

While in principle there is agreement on some, not all, of these ends, there remains a fundamental conflict of visions with Republican opponents’ Platform (and with “cyber-libertarians“) over fundamentals such as the role of Federal Communications Commission oversight, over antitrust and privacy policies — and over economic liberalization generally as it relates to technology and infrastructure.

The creation of knowledge and the application of that knowledge to advancing well-being deserves the attention it’s getting. Yet both parties have plenty to learn, it seems.