The U.S. has a lot of failed policies concerning areas such as economics and foreign affairs, but it seems one place they seem to be able to get it right is with science and technology policy. The most apparent reason for this is that the government has a good policy when it comes to making science and technology policy: Don't make policies.
Most of the current policy regarding science and technology is old. There is a patent system, and the government marks money for research efforts, which is the main vehicle of policymaking. There are occasions when the government decides that a policy decision is necessary on this front. Unfortunately, science and technology policymaking it is too often initiated for the wrong reasons, created ignorantly or without enough discussion, and executed poorly. Two recent examples of this effect are the whole body of legislation dealing with media rights, like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and our current energy policies.
In the case of the DMCA-like legislation, a powerful and wealthy industry whined and complained until the government responded by backing them up and trying to protect their interests. Unfortunately, this was the wrong way to handle the situation.
The problem stems from media corporations’ defiance in the face of a changing market. In a knee-jerk reaction to a threat to their current business model, they tried to halt everything—the progression of innovation itself—in a bid to regain complete control over distribution rather than adapting their model to fit their customers and technology. It's wrong to copy and distribute media without compensation because this is what artists create and companies exploit to make money; but there were already laws that address this. Not all parts of the DMCA are unjustified, but some of the language and policies enacted by it only serve to help media companies at the expense of the general public.
American policy regarding our energy problems has also been misguided, though not completely detrimental. Having no policy at all regarding technological issues is often not a viable reality, but when policies must be made, they should be as general as possible and created with as much input from knowledgeable scientists as possible.
Biofuel has received a lot of attention recently as a clean and renewable energy resource, and because of this the government spent a lot of money subsidizing biofuel research and the infrastructure to help it. Unfortunately, it currently takes more energy to produce biofuel than can be extracted from the end product. Many biofuels are produced with foodstuffs, reducing the already weakening food supply. While efforts are now being made to correct these two issues, a more general approach to new energy sources might have led to a better solution or a less problematic version of the current biofuel idea. There are many other clean and renewable technologies that can be and are being developed but have received a lot less attention and funding. Many are on par or potentially better offerings than biofuel. While an energy policy was necessary to address the upcoming issues facing the nation, the policy implemented was too strong and too specific to produce the technological innovation that is needed.
A hands-off approach to science and technology policy has allowed the U.S. to remain at the forefront of innovation for a very long time. But recent policy decisions restricting scientific research or providing undue influence in the direction of research appears to be hurting our preeminence.
While policy is not the only factor contributing to this problem, it has a noticeable effect. In the case of digital rights management, we’ve wasted much money and effort on treating the symptoms and not the problem. With regard to energy policy, potential research into promising fields was overlooked in an effort to provide a quick, but ultimately mediocre, solution.
On the other hand, government policy concerning the heavily debated topic of stem cell research is very reserved. Contrary to popular belief, it is not outlawed. The only restriction is that government funds cannot be used to support stem-cell projects. This is the kind of compromise that works for everybody: First, research is not restricted. And second, uninterested parties don’t have to participate. Otherwise, policy regarding stem cells is very minimal, which is encouraging given its ethical questions.
In general, the government needs to do its best to protect the openness of the scientific and technological community because that openness is what leads to innovation and discovery in research. Any effort to direct or govern, especially without expertise or understanding in the field, will only lead to wasted resources and stifled innovation.
Sean Laughlin is a master's student in the Cockrell School of Engineering studying computer architecture.