Cover: Critical Technologies

Critical Technologies

The View from Industry

Published 1998

by Steven W. Popper

Research Brief

Since 1991, Congress has requested a biennial report about the state of the U.S. technology enterprise. Because of the complex nature of the subject, the approach taken by the administration in producing each successive critical technologies report has evolved. Given the advances by U.S. industry during the 1990s, the administration decided to use the current effort to understand more clearly the realities faced by the true custodians and users of the U.S. technology base—private industry.

Rather than replicate and update the list provided in the most recent (third) National Critical Technologies Report, the administration extended the inquiry in new directions. This fresh angle was intended to fill the information needs of policymakers by providing a new set of voices speaking to the questions raised in this area of public policy. Commissioned by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, New Forces at Work: Industry Views Critical Technologies was produced by RAND's Science and Technology Policy Institute (formerly the Critical Technologies Institute) as a deliberate experiment in finding new approaches to the issue of critical technologies. Based on in-depth interviews with managers from 39 firms, the method permitted examination of core issues such as what makes a technology "critical," as well as other issues surrounding those interactions of the private, public, and academic sectors that give rise to the technologies that form the foundation of the U.S. economic system.

The views reported in this document present an encouraging picture of U.S. industry as an originator and cutting-edge user of critical technologies. Many of the concerns echoed in the early years of the National Critical Technologies review process have been addressed by real changes in the behavior and character of U.S. industry. Not surprisingly, among the technologies most often cited as being critical across the broad expanse of U.S. industry were software, microelectronics and telecommunications technologies, and sensor and imaging technologies. The interviews disclosed the extent to which even traditional industries are being transformed by the computer revolution. In addition, the realm of new materials emerged as being of increasing importance.

However, not all areas of technology viewed as "critical" were seen as representing a strength for the United States. In particular, manufacturing technology was held up as a problem of long standing whose effect continues to be reliance upon foreign manufacturers of advanced manufacturing equipment.

Further, although the interviews focused on issues of technology, the format allowed insights to be offered and gathered on the context within which technology is developed and deployed. For example, many of the interviewees pointed to more-intimate and earlier contact between suppliers and customers as both a cause and effect of increased attention to technology issues in firms.

One theme that recurred in a large number of interviews was education. On the one hand, respondents had high praise for the U.S. university system and its pursuit of basic research; on the other hand, they expressed concern over the state of the nation's K–12 education system. The K–12 education system was seen as crucial not only to the training of a technologically literate workforce able to elicit the full measure of capability from available technology, but also as necessary for maintaining the health of the important higher-education institutions.

There was general agreement on the appropriateness and importance of the roles of the government: providing leadership and vision, supporting basic and high-risk research, and ensuring a commercial, legal, and regulatory environment conducive to economic activity. Particularly interesting was the first of these roles, interpreted by many as government acting as a convenor, providing auspices within industries or among the involved stakeholders in precompetitive-stage technologies for early discussion of general issues and standards that would enhance the rates of technology development and adoption. Further, the view was widely held among the interviewees that the technology concerns of the government acting on behalf of the entire society were necessarily different from, and as important to express as, those of private industry. In this respect, the answers given on what technologies are critical differed as the industry leaders were asked first to speak from the perspective of their companies and then to consider the question as technically literate members of the general public. In the latter case, issues of energy, environmental, and living-systems technologies assumed a considerably expanded presence in the replies.

Finally, the interviews made clear the extent to which technology is viewed as a process as much as a series of discrete products. This found an echo in the general view of the value of engaging in a review of critical technologies at the national level. To the extent that the process used in conducting such a review is made integral to the concerns of both industry and government and that participation can be gained from both sectors, the ensuing output is more likely to be valued by the respective participants and the resulting recommendations and insights made operational. Until now, the practicalities of sustaining such an interchange have defeated the best intentions of those charged with carrying forward the National Critical Technologies review process. However, the very telecommunications and microelectronics-based technologies that are the subject of the discussion now make it possible to contemplate new means for enhancing the engagement between government and industry over questions of critical technologies.

This report is part of the RAND research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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