Concerns about U.S. competitiveness prompt calls for a deeper probe into the importance of science to the economy.
If you heard these concerns recently, science advocates would have been talking about the U.S. losing its science and technology lead over China. But the shaky ground of U.S. competitiveness isn’t novel turf. Back in 1991, those concerns led to Stephen A. Merrill getting a job leading the newly created National Academies Board on Science, Technology & Economic Policy (STEP)—only then the worry was about Japan.
Merrill retired last month, ending his 23-year tenure as director of STEP—a period that began with fears of the U.S. losing its technological advantage, continued into the heady days of the dot-com boom, and now reflects a return to the same fears, this time of China.
“We’ve ridden the wave from extreme pessimism to almost euphoria to something closer to pessimism, and the geography of interest has shifted,” Merrill says. Through it all, “there are particular issues that continue to percolate,” such as patent reform and technology transfer.
The STEP board was conceived by an economist and two industry leaders—chemical engineer Ralph Landau was one of them—to help bring more economic expertise to National Academies studies. Today, the board includes a mix of academic economists, technology leaders from industry, venture capitalists, and policymakers who examine the economics surrounding some of the biggest science and technology issues of the day.
Merrill, who had worked in Congress and as head of government affairs for the National Academies, was chosen to lead the board when it was formed. Its first studies were about R&D tax policy, but Congress quickly turned to the board for studies of everything from manufacturing to immigration to prizes that encourage research.
STEP’s biggest accomplishment has been its study on patent reform, Merrill says. The board was met with skepticism by both patent lawyers and the patent office when it first decided to do a report on the issue in 2001. “I think when we started it was very unlikely that we were going to have any influence,” Merrill remembers.
But gradually, through a series of workshops and meetings, STEP’s suggestions to improve the quality of patents and streamline the process of challenging a patent gained momentum. Now nearly all of its major recommendations have been implemented, most notably in the Leahy-Smith America Invents Act of 2011. “It was almost seven years before anything came to fruition,” he says.
Congress has often asked the board to examine science and technology infrastructure in other countries or individual states to glean lessons for the federal government. Their research has spanned the U.S. and the globe, from Arkansas and Hawaii to China and Germany, but the lessons are not surprising, Merrill explains. “Consistency and the level of resources has been a huge problem in the federal government.”
For example, the ideological debate in Congress about the role of the government in supporting business has prevented the U.S. from creating a long-term policy to support precommercial technologies, something many other countries are doing well. “The landscape is littered with short-duration efforts to craft a federal role in technology development,” he says.
Another issue the board has recognized is an imbalance in federal research funding, reflected in the declining support for physical science and engineering, Merrill says. A 2001 STEP report documented the decline, and it was picked up by the authors of the 2005 “Rising Above the Gathering Storm” report, which recommended increased support for the physical sciences, especially at the Department of Defense.
Both the America Competes Act and its 2010 renewal authorized more funding for physical sciences, but the money never came through. “Physical science and engineering continues to suffer more than other fields,” Merrill says. “The frustrating thing is there have been major legislative attempts to correct it, and they haven’t really succeeded.”
The research community, in its search for a way to convince Congress to support science, has focused on better ways to measure the return on scientific investment. Merrill’s message: Give up. It’s too difficult to get credible numbers, he says, and it won’t work. “I tend to believe that members of Congress are more persuaded by examples than by numbers,” he says. “Not everything in science will pay off, but enough pays off to make the investment worth it.”
Recently, the STEP board has been less worried about U.S. competitiveness than about overall economic trends in the U.S. “There is a lot of concern about rising inequality, the deficit of middle-class jobs, and future sources for skilled jobs, not necessarily for college graduates,” he says. “We are still struggling to find a set of questions that could conceivably provide answers and guide policy.”
As Merrill begins his retirement, he is looking forward to an extended European vacation. But he will miss working with the brightest people in the country. “The ability to conceive of a new project that is important to the nation and then see it through is really satisfying.”