United States Case Study (in Technology Foresight)

The Handbook of Technology Foresight: Concepts and Practice, L. Georghiou, J.C. Harper, M. Kennan, I. Miles, and R. Popper (Eds.), Edward Elgar Publishers, 2008, 154-169

Alan Porter (Search Technology, Inc., and Technology Policy & Assessment Center, Georgia Institute of Technology)
Brad Ashton (Concurrent Technologies Corporation)

Published: 2008


[from the "Conclusions"]

The Foreword of an OECD report (1999) asserts:
There is a growing interest in technology foresight in the OECD Member countries because of the need to set priority in research and development in the context of the increasing cost of research and the tightening public budget for research.  R&D efforts also need to be directed towards fulfilling social needs at the same time as providing sources of innovations that contribute to sustainable growth.

These premises do not hold for the U.S.  There is no growing interest in foresight.  There is no momentum, still less consensus, that R&D prioritization should be set by spelling out goals and ascertaining relative priorities for various research domains.  Indeed, the U.S. seeks to be a predominant player in all R&D domains (National Academy of Sciences, 1993).  And there are no strong indications of commitment to link R&D priorities to societal goals.

What are the consequences of this "anti-foresight" situation?  Can a nation fare well scientifically and economically trusting to a marketplace of ideas and pressures to establish priorities and allocate resources?  If so, why are other nations investing in extensive foresight activities?

The American political process essentially treats science & technology via pluralistic processes.  Voices cry out (for resources) from scientists, industrial interests, and activists (pro- and anti-science).  Multiple agencies support and sometimes conduct R&D in somewhat overlapping spheres of interest.  Multiple Congressional committees exert power over legislative, budgetary, and regulatory aspects.  Two political parties strive to effect agendas.  The Executive Branch balances against the Congressional Branch, where the House and the Senate jockey between themselves.  Annual Federal budget cycles predominate.  In recent years, pork-barreling has arrived in R&D, with earmarking of pet projects for institutions in particular political constituencies.  However, most R&D funding continues to rely on some variation of scientific peer review to assure quality.  This is not a milieu conducive to far-reaching national foresight.  But it lends a multi-voice robustness to science and technology development.

Wagner and Popper (2003), reflecting particularly on the decade of U.S. critical technologies activities, identify the poor fit between foresight-like processes and the American S&T system.  While some of us lament this in whole or in part, Americans and others should also reflect on its strengths.  The lack of an established priority-informing process allows, and may facilitate, adaptive response to changing concerns.  The lack of clear agency R&D responsibilities enables alternative routes to pursue new initiatives.  Examples abound, but consider how many U.S. Federal agencies have a hand in "nano" R&D.  This risks redundancy and waste of precious resources.  However, the increasing availability of  accessible S&T information resources on research programs, projects, and outputs (papers, patents) offer the potential to coordinate (not that this is well done now).

To the extent that tech foresight is able to foresee emerging technologies and shifting needs, those who use foresight may gain a significant advantage over those who do not.  Wagner and Popper (2003) assert that "Foresight cannot provide predictions or even leading indicators."  We disagree, yet must admit that it is not easy to present clear evidence of foresight providing effective "early warning" that made a difference. 

Another argument in favor of the U.S. non-foresight stance is that foresight is usually open information.  Hence, American agencies, companies, and researchers can, in principle, make use of foresight knowledge generated by others.  Albeit, we do not have evidence that much attention is being paid to such knowledge in any explicit way.

To what extent does a "tri-helix" innovation system involving academic, industry, and government contributors to and users of R&D attend to foresight?  In countries that strive to do so, national governmental roles take a strong leadership position - i.e., set national priorities.  But, for some technology and economic situations, the pluralistic American innovation system may make up for such focused effort through fostering more multi-path explorations - or as Wagner and Popper (2003) call it, "self-assembly."  The more the innovation system is subject to unpredictable, rapid changes, the more advantage to the pluralistic approach.  Good technological intelligence to pick up quickly on emergent opportunities may outweigh careful foresight.  Such a messy, opportunistic system may especially do better at "Radical Innovation" (Dismukes et al., 2005).

That said, how about the value in spelling out R&D fit to societal goals?  As we write the U.S. is fighting about stem-cell research but has opted in to genetically engineered foods without much of a murmur.  The American scientific community does not seem overly anxious to engage a broad public in deliberating about research agendas.  While agenda-setting ought to be inclusive in a democratic society, do we want a populace whose majority (+/-) disbelieves evolution directly involved?  As foresight proponents, we might well counter that well-orchestrated processes have a strong educational component preceding judgmental elements.  Were foresight able to widen popular interest in science, this might yield significant impetus to fixing an educational system that fares badly in teaching science, math, and engineering compared to other nations.

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