The Federal Role in Technology Development
CRS Report for Congress
The Federal Role in Technology Development
Wendy H. Schacht
Specialist in Science and Technology
Resources, Science, and Industry Division
The federal government has traditionally played a role in fostering technological
progress. This has involved both direct federal research and development (R&D)
funding and indirect measures that create incentives for increased private sector
investments in innovation. However, this mix of initiatives has been challenged since
the 104th Congress. While support for all on-going efforts continues, some programs
have been funded at reduced levels. However, since FY2001, appropriations appear to
have reversed this trend. As programs are implemented and mature, concerns are being
raised as to the appropriate balance between the importance of bringing new and
improved products and processes to the marketplace and protecting the public
investment in R&D.
Technology Development: The Federal Role1
The federal government funds research and development (R&D) to meet the mission
requirements of the departments and agencies (e.g., defense, public health, environmental
quality). It also finances work in areas where there is an identified need for research,
primarily basic research, not being performed in the private sector. Federal support
reflects a consensus that while basic research is the foundation for many innovations, the
rate of return to society as a whole generated by investments in such work is significantly
larger than the benefits that can be captured by the performing institution. This often
leads to underinvestment in research by the business community.
Over the last 20 years, congressional initiatives have expanded the government’s
role in R&D to include the promotion of technological innovation to meet other national
needs, particularly the economic growth that flows from the commercialization and use
of new products and production processes. Technological advance can drive the economy
because it contributes to the creation of new goods and services, new industries, new jobs,
1 For a detailed discussion see CRS Issue Brief IB91132, Industrial Competitiveness and
Technological Advancement: Debate Over Government Policy, by Wendy H. Schacht.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
and new capital. It allows for an expanded range of services and extends the geographic
distribution of those services. The application of technology also may contribute to the
resolution of those national problems that are amenable to such solutions. Experts widely
believe that technological progress is responsible for up to one-half the growth of the U.S.
economy and is one principal driving force in long-term economic expansion and
increases in the nation’s standard of living.
Congress often has been the source of federal inducements to technological progress.
The legislative approach generally reflects the basic tenet that while commercialization
of technology is the responsibility of the private sector, there are benefits that may be
derived from additional mechanisms to stimulate industrial innovation. As a result of
bipartisan efforts, various laws have removed barriers to technology development in the
business community and provided incentives for increased private sector R&D. Many
legislative initiatives involve promotion of cooperative relationships among government,
industry, and academia.
The laws affecting the R&D environment have included both direct and indirect
measures to facilitate technological innovation. In general, direct measures are those that
concern budget outlays and the provision of services by government agencies. Indirect
measures include financial incentives and legal changes (e.g., liability or regulatory
reform; new antitrust arrangements). Supporters of an indirect approach argue the market
is superior to government in determining those technologies worthy of investment.
Mechanisms that enhance opportunities for the market to make such choices are preferred.
It is assumed that reliance on the discretion of federal agencies to promote one technology
in preference over others will inevitably be subjected to political pressures from
entrenched interests. Conversely, proponents of direct government assistance maintain
that indirect methods can be wasteful and ineffective, and may compromise other goals
of public policy in the hope of stimulating innovative performance. Advocates of federal
spending argue it is important to put the country’s scarce resources to work on those
technologies with the greatest promise as determined by industry and supported by the
community’s willingness to match government funding.
In the past, while Republicans tended to prefer reliance on free market investment,
competition, and indirect federal support, participants in the debates generally did not
make definite (or exclusionary) choices between the two approaches, nor consistently
favor one over the other. For example, some proponents of a stronger direct role for the
government in innovation are also supporters of enhanced tax preferences for R&D
spending, an indirect mechanism. Opponents of direct federal support for specific
projects (e.g., SEMATECH, flat panel displays) nevertheless may back similar activities
focused on more general areas such as manufacturing or information technology.
However, many of these activities were called into question during the 104th
Congress as reflected in the House Republican Contract with America, associated budget
proposals, and various authorization and appropriations legislation. Similar issues have
been raised in subsequent Congresses but appear subject to less conflict. While most of
the programs survived termination challenges, such efforts implied a significant change
from the past. Under former President Bush, government’s stated role was “. . . to
support the development of generic or enabling technologies at the pre-competitive stage
of R&D” and included direct federal cost-shared funding for several industrial programs.
Increased private sector investment was encouraged as was public-private collaboration
through the National Technology Initiative. Also proposed were reductions in the capital
gains tax rate, making permanent the research and experimentation tax credit, increasing
international intellectual property protection, limiting product liability, and eliminating
The Clinton Administration expanded upon this approach in the context of a national
strategy for commercial technological advancement as part of a defined national economic
policy. There have been efforts to increase direct federal funding for “industry led”
technology programs (with matching private sector commitments); to augment
cooperation among all levels of government, industry, and academia; to move from
defense R&D toward civilian R&D support; and to shift emphasis from basic research to
include development of commercial products and processes. The Administration’s
strategy for civilian technology investment was based upon support of both direct and
indirect federal assistance.
An overview of the current mix of indirect and direct measures designed to facilitate
technological advancement is offered below.
Indirect Measures. Among the most visible indirect mechanism is the Research
and Experimentation Tax Credit originally mandated by the 1981 Economic Recovery
Tax Act (P.L. 97-34). Extended several times, the most recently through June 30, 2004,
the law allows a 20% credit for increases in a firm’s qualified research costs above the
average expenditures for the previous 3 tax years. Qualified costs include in-house
expenditures such as wages for researchers, materials, and payments for use of equipment;
65% of corporate grants towards basic research at universities and other relevant
institutions; and 65% of payments for contract research. The credit is applicable to 75%
of a company’s tax liability. Small, start-up firms also are eligible.
Various legislative initiatives have been enacted to facilitate cooperative ventures
among government, business, and academia in recognition of the fact that investments in
research and development are often costly, long term, and risky. It is argued that
collaborative R&D ameliorates these factors and permits work to be performed that
crosses traditional boundaries of expertise and experience. To encourage increased
private sector R&D activity, the National Cooperative Research Act (P.L. 98-462)
clarifies the antitrust laws as they relate to joint research efforts and eliminates treble
damage awards for those ventures actually found in violation if prior disclosure to the
government has been made. These changes came in response to industry’s reluctance to
enter into cooperative efforts because of the threat of antitrust prosecution. Through
FY2002, over 765 joint research ventures have filed with the Department of Justice since
passage of this legislation. In addition, the success of this law precipitated the enactment
of the National Cooperative Production Amendments Act of 1993 (P.L. 103-42)
which extends the provisions of the National Cooperative Research Act to joint
manufacturing ventures with certain reservations concerning location and ownership of
the participating enterprises.
Another indirect approach to augment commercialization involves the transfer of
technology from federal laboratories and contractors to the industrial community
mandated by the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act (P.L. 96-480), as
amended.2 This law created institutional mechanisms by which government agencies and
their laboratories can move technology to the private sector as well as integrate industrial
expertise into the federal R&D enterprise. Additional incentives are contained in the
Federal Technology Transfer Act (P.L. 99-502) and the Defense Authorization Act
of 1990 (P.L. 101-189) which enable government laboratories to enter into cooperative
R&D agreements (CRADAs) with universities and industry. In pursuing joint efforts, the
laboratory may accept funds, personnel, services, and property from the collaborating
party and may provide personnel, services, and property (but not funds) to the other
organization. The work performed must be consistent with the laboratory’s mission.
Preference for cooperative ventures is given to small businesses, companies that will
manufacture in the United States, or foreign firms from countries that permit American
companies to enter into similar arrangements. To date, over 5,000 CRADAs have been
signed (including NASA Space Act Agreements).
P.L. 96-517, Amendments to the Patent and Trademark Act (commonly referred
to as the “Bayh-Dole Act”), utilizes the ownership of inventions arising out of
government-sponsored R&D to encourage development of new technologies. The law
provides for title to inventions made with federal R&D funding to be vested in the
contractor if it is a small business, university, or not-for-profit institution. Patent
ownership is seen as a way to promote the additional private sector investment necessary
for commercialization. Certain rights are reserved for the government.3
Direct Measures. Government programs directly funding technology
development experienced the most scrutiny since the 104th Congress. Several times the
House has acted to delete appropriations for the Advanced Technology Program. While
many of these activities require cost sharing of at least 50% with non-federal partners and
usually are responsive to industry-led priorities, there are indications that some Members
view them as inappropriate federal government involvement in market choices.
The Advanced Technology Program (ATP), provides seed funding, matched by
private-sector investment to companies or consortia of universities, businesses, and
government laboratories for development of generic technologies that have broad
application across industries.4 Managed by the National Institute of Standards and
Technology (NIST), a laboratory of the Department of Commerce, this program was
established by the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988 (P.L.100-418).
Awards, based on technical and business merit, are made for work which is high-risk and
past the basic research stage but not yet ready for commercialization. Initial funding for
2 For further detail see CRS Report RL30320, Patent Ownership and Federal Research and
Development: A Discussion on the Bayh-Dole Act and the Stevenson-Wydler Act, by Wendy H.
3 For additional discussion see CRS Report 98-862, R&D Partnerships and Intellectual Property:
Implications for U.S. Policy, by Wendy H. Schacht.
4 For more information see CRS Report 95-36, The Advanced Technology Program, by Wendy
ATP in FY1991 was $36 million; by FY1995, this had expanded significantly to $341
million (after rescissions). Support began to decline in FY1996. Attempts were made by
the House to terminate the program although funding has continued. FY2002 ATP
appropriations totaled $184.5 million.
Also created by the 1988 Trade Act was a program of regional manufacturing
technology transfer centers, now known as the Manufacturing Extension Partnership
(MEP).5 Knowledge and technologies developed under the auspices of the National
Institute of Standards and Technology are used to assist small and medium-sized
companies. To date all states have manufacturing technology centers or smaller outreach
centers. Beginning with $11.9 million in FY1991, the Partnership expanded in FY1994
to include the Centers Program, the Manufacturing Outreach effort, and the State
Extension Program. A new program, LINKS, was added in FY1995 to tie together federal,
state, and local agencies, the private sector, and the manufacturing outreach institutions
through communications and computer data systems. Recently, funding has remained
stable as additional financial responsibilities are taken over by the non-federal partner.
FY2002 funding for the program is $106.5 million.
The Small Business Innovation Research Program, mandated by P.L. 97-219, as
amended, is an activity to assist small, high technology companies perform research,
development, and commercialization in areas of interest to the government.6 Each federal
agency with an R&D budget over $100 million is required to set aside a percentage of that
funding (2.5% through the end of FY2008) for grants to small firms. Financing is, in part,
dependent on companies obtaining private sector support for the commercialization of the
resulting products or processes. A pilot effort, the Small Business Technology Transfer
Program, also was created to encourage small firms to work with universities or federal
laboratories to facilitate the commercialization of research performed in these institutions.
This activity is funded by a set-aside (originally 0.15% and increased to 0.3%). Initially
expected to sunset in FY1996, the program has been extended through FY2009.
Issues For Consideration: A New Approach?
In the past, government support for technology development has been reflected in
the balance between legislatively mandated incentives for private sector investment and
direct government financing of R&D. The activities of the 104th Congress displayed a
preference for the first approach while subsequent Congresses further explored technology
policy within the context of budget decisions. Although on-going programs were funded,
some support was at reduced levels. What happens next might be dependent on how the
debate is framed. Will federal funding of specific technology ventures continue to be seen
by the majority as “picking winners and losers” or will spending for efforts such as the
Advanced Technology Program be seen as fostering productive collaboration among
firms? Is the government making decisions which should best be left to the marketplace
or is there an overriding national need for federal investment in these industry-led
5 See: CRS Report 97-104, The Manufacturing Extension Partnership, by Wendy H. Schacht.
6 Additional detail in CRS Report 96-402, The Small Business Innovation Research Program, by
Wendy H. Schacht.
There appears to be agreement with the basic premise that the government does have
a role in fostering technological advancement in the private sector; the debate is over how
this is best achieved within existing and future budget constraints. In place of direct
federal appropriations, some have suggested the creation of tax incentives which,
proponents argue, would provide the capital resources necessary for industry to invest in
additional R&D. Thus, efforts such as a permanent and expanded research and
experimentation tax credit are considered a viable substitute for government cost-shared
programs. Changes in the capital gains tax to encourage long term investments,
particularly in high technology companies, also have been proposed to increase the
amount of funding available for industrial use.
Regulatory reform may be used to facilitate technology development by diminishing
the costs associated with bringing a new product or process to the marketplace.
Disincentives to new technology development embodied in the threat of large punitive
damage awards might be addressed by liability reform. In addition, other ideas might be
considered to encourage collaborative work among industry, university, and government.
These include changes to the antitrust laws pertaining to cooperative development and/or
commercialization activities, increasing state government participation in relevant federal
decisionmaking, and strengthening intellectual property protection.
Legislative activity has emphasized creation of an environment conducive to such
cooperative ventures. To date, Congress has determined that efforts that provide title to
inventions made under federal funding to contractors and/or collaborating parties should
be used to support innovation and technology development. In return for patent
ownership, Congress has accepted as satisfactory the anticipated payback to the country
through goods and services to improve our health, welfare, and standard of living. These
benefits have been considered more important than the initial cost of the technology to the
government or any potential unfair advantage of one company over another in a
cooperative venture. However, as such efforts become more widespread and as new
issues emerge, additional decisions may need to be made on how to maintain a balance
between the importance of bringing new products and processes to the marketplace and
protecting the public investment in R&D.
Research and development funding constitutes the largest single portion of total
federal discretionary spending and is therefore subject to cuts as legislators move toward
a balanced budget. As a result, priorities concerning the allocation of financing may need
to be established. The 107th Congress may find it productive to explore new methods to
encourage increased activities by other parties in the innovation process, particularly if
the goal is to continue the technological advancement which has been so instrumental to
this nation’s economic growth and high living standard.