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Is Bush Good for Tech?
Bush Didn’t Invent the Internet, but Is He Good for Tech?
EORGE W. BUSH probably won’t be remembered as “the high-tech president.” The strongholds of the biotech and infotech industries, on the East and West Coasts, voted against him. If his State of the Union address next week, his fourth, is like the previous three, it will say next to nothing about the role of science or advanced technology in the nation’s economic and social future. The symbol of Al Gore’s relationship with gizmos was the early-model BlackBerry he wore on his belt. The symbol of Mr. Bush’s was his tumble from a Segway computerized scooter in 2003.
Yet the Bush administration could end up being known for some technology advances that occurred on its watch. I am speaking not only of purely private developments – the renaissance of Internet-based businesses in this age of Google – or of the heavy public spending for military and surveillance systems, which is creating a vast new antiterrorism-industrial complex.
Instead, as in many chapters of American technological history, some of the most significant innovations have been made where public and private efforts touch. In its first term, the Bush team made a few important pro-technology choices. Over the next year it will signal whether it intends to stand by them.
There is a long historical background to the administration’s choices, plus a variety of recent shifts and circumstances. The history stretches to the early days of the republic, and the idea that government-sponsored research in science and technology could bolster private business growth. Progress in farming, led by the land-grant universities, demonstrated this concept in the 19th century. Sputnik-era science, culminating in the work that led to the Internet, did the same in the 20th century.
In the last two decades, this old idea has been dressed up with concepts like “network economics” and “increasing return to scale.” The results include the widely accepted understanding that the relationship of public science and private business is more important than ever. An environment in which the exchange of information is timely and inexpensive, rather than slow and costly, can foster the growth of many industries.
That sounds obvious. But it has political consequences. For one, it helps explain why the United States has been so fertile an incubator for tech companies, compared with most of Europe: government-sponsored information has been much cheaper here. (The United States government sells a CD set containing all weather readings taken in the last 50 years for $4,290; the German government data costs $1.5 million.) American dynamism also creates an ever-changing set of winners and losers. In fostering many new companies, the government often dislodges a few old ones; dealing with the resulting protests is each administration’s problem.
During President Bill Clinton’s first term, the Office of Management and Budget issued a bold new document on balancing these interests. Although it reeked of “bridge to the 21st century”-style futurism, it had actually been prepared and approved by the previous Bush administration and was released under President Clinton virtually unchanged. The document was called O.M.B. Circular A-130, and its crucial argument was that the government should distribute information as quickly, as broadly and as cheaply as possible – technically, “at no more than the cost of dissemination” – and that it should do so via the most modern channels available. Of course, that meant the Internet.
The Clinton-era information wars followed. Mead Data Central, then the owner of Nexis-Lexis, had enjoyed an exclusive contract to distribute data from S.E.C. filings, at steep prices. After a lawsuit and a change in policy, that filing data became available free, over the Internet. Struggles with other companies, with similar results, occurred in the Patent Office, the I.R.S. and other agencies.
When the George W. Bush administration arrived, it faced a choice. Should it dump the A-130 policy like other detritus of the Clinton era, sparing more companies disruption like Mead’s? Or should it push ahead, because of the assumed benefit of free information to the economy?
In general, and perhaps surprisingly, it kept pushing. Compromises were struck and adjustments were made – and information with any conceivable link to the “war on terror” was locked up tight. A continuing struggle concerns when and how the results of publicly funded medical studies should be made freely available – a subject for another day. But for the most part, the federal government acted in the spirit intended by George H. W. Bush and put into effect by Mr. Clinton.
One of the most important and contentious struggles, mentioned here last spring, appears to be turning out in a way that will burnish the Bush administration’s pro-tech record. This is the “fair weather” controversy. The question at its core is whether the National Weather Service, which uses taxpayer funds to collect nearly all weather readings, will be allowed to make its information available through the Internet – or instead required to sluice it all to commercial weather services, as the S.E.C. once did with Mead.
The famous Circular A-130 argued strongly for Internet distribution, as did a special study of the question by the National Research Council in 2003. The weather service went ahead with such sites – and they have proved enormously popular. During the three months last fall when four hurricanes struck the South, weather service sites received nine billion hits – breaking a government record of six billion hits on NASA sites in the three months after the Mars rover landing last spring.
From an interest in aviation, I often visit the weather service’s marvelous Aviation Digital Data Web site, at adds.aviationweather.noaa.gov. Without a doubt, it has saved many lives by making it easy for pilots to understand where the dangers from icing, thunderstorms and turbulence are. Last fall, the government invited public comment on the weather service’s new strategy and received overwhelming support. Just after the election, the service announced that it would officially embrace an open-information policy.
BUT the Commercial Weather Services Association, the industry’s trade group, has complained that such sites violate an agreement from the pre-Internet era. By their argument, the taxpayers should continue to pay for all the weather balloons and monitoring stations – but should not be allowed to get the results directly from government sites.
“We feel that they spend a lot of their funding and attention on duplicating products and services that already exist in the private sector,” Barry Lee Myers, executive vice president of AccuWeather, says of the weather service. “And they are not spending the kind of time and effort that is needed on catastrophic issues that involve lives and property, which I think is really their true function.”
He added that the weather service might have done a better, faster job of warning about the southern Asian tsunami if it had not been distracted in this way. Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, where AccuWeather is based, has supported the industry group’s position. A spokesman said Mr. Santorum would introduce legislation to “help” the weather service “continue providing meteorological infrastructure, forecasts and warnings, rather than providing services already effectively provided by the private sector.” In other words, taking down those Web sites that the stealth High-Tech Administration has helped create.
Author2005-01-23 at 10:06:00 am
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