In this overview Mark Knell describe and illustrate the most important policy actors and interactions between the different policy levels and co-ordination structures of the American STI system.
Mark Knell, Research Professor, NIFU
There are many policy actors within the US innovation system. Who are the key policy actors? We describe and illustrate the most important policy actors and interactions between the different policy levels and co-ordination structures of the American STI system.
The United States has a tripartite governing system with a legislative branch that makes laws, an executive branch that carries out laws, and a judicial branch that interprets laws. Congressional committees draft legislation, some of which is relevant to science, technology and innovation (STI) policies.
In Congress most important committees are the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, which has a wide range of STI policy areas including energy, astronautical and civil aviation, environmental, and marine research, etc., and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation includes science, engineering, and technology research and development and policy.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions consider biomedical research policy. And the House Armed Services Committee and the Senate Committee on Armed Services include military research and development.
Executive power in the federal government rests with the president of the United States. STI policy issues are normally handled at the department level in the US, but they can reach the Presidential level if they involve multiple agencies and have budgetary, economic, national security, or foreign policy dimensions.
Several departments of the executive branch deal with STI policy. The Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has been a department of the US government, within the Executive Office of the President.The National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976 was key and set up to advise the president and coordinate federal science agencies. Known as the President’s Science Advisor, it has a broad mandate to advise the President on the impacts of science and technology on domestic and international affairs and develop and implement sound STI policies and budgets.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has a broad mandate to advise the US President on science and technology. OSTP administers PCAST, which makes policy recommendations on various STI issues.
The National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) coordinates science and technology policy across various parts of the Federal Government. The President is chair and there are six committees, each with given set of tasks. In 2009 (updated October 2015), the National Economic Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy of the Obama administration issued the Strategy for American Innovation.
There are 15 executive departments in the cabinet, of which the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Agriculture Energy, and Defence are most relevant.
Important agencies include the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH). The NSF supports fundamental research and education in all the non-medical fields of science and engineering and the NIH covers biomedical research. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) has four agencies that does research on agriculture and related issues. The Department of Energy does energy-related research, including nuclear research, and it directs research in genomics. This agency supports more research in the physical sciences through its system of National Laboratories than any other agency.
There are two key players in the US innovation system. The first is the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This agency handles the development of emerging technologies for use by the military. Its mission statement is «to make pivotal investments in breakthrough technologies for national security». About a third of the total government R&D budget forwent to defence activities in 2019, or about 50 billion US dollars.
The second important player is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). This is an independent agency of the US Government responsible for the civilian space program, aeronautics, and aerospace research, as well as astrophysics and climate related issues. The President of the United States appoints NASA’s administrator, subject to approval of the US Senate. The US gave $10 billion for the exploration and exploitation of space.
Finally, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies) are private, non-profit organisations that supplies nonpartisan, objective guidance for decision makers on pressing issues in science, engineering, and medicine.
Gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) was 581.6 billion US dollars in 2018. This was 40% of the OECD total. GERD as a percentage of GDP was 2.83%, or about 0.4 percentage points above the OECD average.
Past STI policies
Congress passed the National Science and Technology Policy, Organization, and Priorities Act of 1976 to advise the president and coordinate federal science agencies. It set up the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to provide Congress with non-partisan advice on innovative technologies to legislators and STI programme evaluation. However, when Republican legislators were in control of Congress, it considered the OTA as wasteful and hostile to GOP interests and dismantled it in 1995.
Remaining parts of the Act of 1976 are still important today, but Congress no longer can assess and evaluate latest technologies. Nevertheless, there are have been calls to revive the OTA after Obama, in the House, from the Brookings Institution (an influential research group) and by the Democratic politician Andrew Yang.
The state level
It is important to keep in mind that the Unites States is a federation, and that the individual states have their own science, technology and innovation policy measures and institutions. Responsibility for regional innovation policies belongs to the states. Initiatives to promote industrial clusters will, for instance, normally take place on the state level. There may also be science programs on the regional level, as well as laws and regulations aimed at encouraging local research and innovation.
Traditionally, education has primarily been the responsibility of parents and local and state government in the US, which means that education policy – the university level included – for the most part is a regional responsibility.
Main photo: The Office of Science and Technology Policy is located in the East Wing of the White House. Photo: Vacclav.