Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Congress Kills the NIST Advanced Technology Program

Read the full article by Eli Kintisch in Science magazine (Science 3 November 2006: Vol. 314. no. 5800, pp. 752 - 753). Subscription required.

The U.S. Congress has apparently voted to kill the NIST Advanced Technology Program (ATP). The House of Representatives has voted eight times to kill the program but supporters, including a handful of senators, have succeeded until this year in rescuing the program.

This program over 16 years has funded 768 projects to the tune of $2.3 billion. It was intended to make U.S. industry more competitive. It was administered by the well-respected National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). NIST scientists provided technical peer review of company proposals. Companies were required to finance nearly one-half the research costs of projects. Funding was for the early stage of technology development. The program recognized that many small companies could not otherwise find risk capital needed to develop innovative technologies, but that the rewards for doing so would often justify the risks.

The program has been the subject of many evaluations, and indeed serves as a model for evaluation research on publicly funded R&D programs. The National Research Council report, Government-Industry Partnerships for Development of New Technologies (2002), states (page 141):
Award partnerships, such as those in the ATP and SBIR (Small Business Innovative Research) programs, can provide an effective means to encourage small firms with promising ideas and technologies to gain access to early-stage financing. In doing so, partnerships contribute to the achievement of government missions in important ways.

Programs such as the SBIR can accelerate and facilitate the modernization of the U.S. defense establishment by introducing new and better information systems. Programs such as the ATP are helping to bring new energy-saving technologies to the market as well as new medical devices and instruments to the healthcare system. Around the world award-based partnerships, such as the ATP and SBIR, are increasingly seen as an effective means to overcome obstacles to new technological development.
Science notes that
the benefits of ATP projects have extended far beyond the companies themselves. Several studies examining a total of 14 projects have claimed an economic return that exceeded $1.2 billion for the $87 million spent by the government. In 1998, a study by the Research Triangle Institute in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, estimated that seven successful tissue-engineering projects that received roughly $15 million from ATP saved society $34 billion in reduced morbidity and lower medical costs.
Although the program was launched during the Reagan Administration and first funded during President George H. W. Bush's administration, it was opposed by a faction of the Republican party. That faction cited ideological reasons for their opposition -- that governments should not try to choose winners among technological innovations because the process was best left to the marketplace, that government technology capacity was not up to the task, etc.

I suspect that there may have been more political reasons. Perhaps too many of the entrepreneurs who created successful technological firms turned out to support Democratic causes.

President Bush announced a Competitiveness Initiative which included increased funding for fundamental research by the National Science Foundation. That funding is great, but has little immediate impact on U.S. competitiveness in the global economy. On the other hand, the ATP which demonstrably has improved competitiveness, has been killed by his party members in the Congress. This seems to be a victory of ideology over the knowledge, of the political over the scientific and technological.

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