In a largely historical op-ed in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, Michael Lubell of CUNY and the American Physical Society lambastes the current parties for their inability to agree on the priority of science funding – in marked contrast to earlier efforts over the past generation when, despite differences of emphasis, bipartisan collaboration led to big increases in the public funding of science and technology.
My take? Three quick points.
1. This brings us back to the question of the question. How is it framed? Little by little, broader concerns with budget, disaffection with “big government,” and stories of weird research projects (always findable, and some plainly are weird), have chipped away at the semi-consensus. I think there’s more to it, and am not sure if the big increases in public science finding would continue anyway for several other reasons. But the issue is framed differently now.
2. I sat round a table recently with the CTO of one of our major tech companies and asked him why, when his organization has strategy people working for the chairman, and R and D people working for him – all with timelines of 7-10 years in their heads – they have federal relations people in DC told that around 18 months should be their time horizon. That is, why have not our major tech companies done the heavy lifting in driving forward the politics of the long term? Also a big issue. My sense is that their deciding to do so, and agreeing long-term goals on which for all their diverse interests they can work together, will prove central to the possibility of a prosperous and secure American tomorrow.
3. Back of the conflicting ideological agendas in Washington lies a remarkable degree of unanimity in, as it were, the “corporate culture.” I have written elsewhere about the divide between the District and the Valley (search this blog or see my Kindle e-book Innovation President). It is vast. Our creative, entrepreneurial culture is almost entirely divorced from our political culture. This is true across the parties, and despite fine people and good initiatives. The cultures are deeply misaligned, and few people at either end care. That’s the core issue here. Budget levels, and an inability to collaborate on agreeing them, are presenting problems. Their cause lies elsewhere.
It’s not my view that more money is “the answer,” though federal S and T spend is very important. There are many other questions that need to be addressed if we are going to ramp up American S and T leadership, and resulting innovation, for the next generation. In the past I have proposed the abolition of academic tenure (through an appropriations rider), restructuring of funding agencies (we could start off with a new one taking 10% of existing non-DoD spend and based in the Valley), cabinet positions for the Science Adviser, the CIO, the CTO; and more besides. I’ve also proposed moving Camp David to the Valley (my friends out there are horrified by the traffic implications) – as the first step in the migration of the federal government to the west coast that I believe to be probably inevitable and certainly desirable in the first Pacific century.
Our C-PET motto is Asking Tomorrow’s Questions. It’s all about the questions. Washington is a city full of smart people with answers. Get the questions right and things will change.