Public Policy

Science and Technology Policy Advocacy

By Clifford Lau and James Gover

Today’s science and technology (S&T) policies can have far-reaching effects on the nation’s research and development endeavor, the economy and even national security. Most of the policies that are considered and ultimately adopted are complex, with many dimensions, including:

  • How much federal funding is devoted to research and development (R&D)?

  • How are these funds distributed among basic research, applied research, advanced development and scheduled development?

  • How is this R&D funding distributed among the various federal agencies?

  • Which technical areas are addressed by this R&D?

  • Who performs this R&D � companies, government-owned laboratories, or universities?

  • Is it reasonable to expect federal R&D funds to contribute to both agency mission and economic development?

Are these important decisions to be made exclusively by politicians, lawyers and power brokers or do scientists, engineers and technicians want to have their say in making these choices?  IEEE-USA offers U.S. IEEE members opportunities to influence U.S. science and technology policy.

R&D is a Primary Economic Driver, Job Creator

S&T policy impacts just about everything we do, especially the economy, and directly or indirectly has impact on our jobs and careers.  As highlighted in the opening paragraph, the most obvious S&T policy is the federal government’s funding in research and development (R&D).  Small reductions in federal R&D funding can result in the loss of thousands of jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).  Reduction in R&D funding can adversely impact the United States’ standing in the world in S&T competitiveness and technology innovation.  Because information technology, computers and microelectronics are the primary drivers behind the robust economy, S&T policy has the most significant impact on these three high-tech industries and their workers.

R&D is critically important to maintaining our country’s competitiveness in the global science and technology enterprise.  Some studies have indicated that U.S. science and technology leadership in the world has been declining, sometimes based on the number of patent applications or new products based on advanced technology.  R&D is the driver behind the economy and innovations, and therefore it is vital that the U.S. maintains strong support for the for both the private sector and public sector R&D budgets.

R&D not only produces new technology and products, it is also vitally important in the creation of jobs in the knowledge economy.  Engineers know that innovation in technology and business leads to job creation.  R&D employs a large number of workers, not only in the physical and biological sciences, information technology, and engineering, but also in supporting areas such as contracts, finance, and administrative functions.  When the funding for R&D is reduced, many jobs are lost.  This year, when the economy started to rebound from the recession of 2008, many jobs were created that require a college education.  In fact, a majority of these jobs require STEM education.  For that reason, IEEE-USA strongly supports STEM education. STEM education is not only necessary for the training of the future workforce, it is a necessity to sustain an enlightened society.


In today’s highly interconnected global economy, export of American technology and products are an important part of the economy.  Many technologies can have dual-uses (both military and commercial), so it is critically important to ensure that civilian technologies that can also be used for military purposes do not fall into the wrong hands. As currently structured, there are several interrelated export control regimes: Export Administration Regulations (EAR), managed by the Department of Commerce; International Trafficking in Arms (ITAR), managed by State Department; and Military Critical Technology List (MCTL), managed by the Department of Defense.    The U.S. government is planning to reform and simplify the export control system and the licensing process.  IEEE-USA strongly endorses reforming and streamlining the export control and licensing process to minimize financial and administrative impact upon those seeking export licenses.

R&D is a critical component to our industrial competitiveness and innovation in the global economy.  Many countries have instituted tax incentives to attract R&D to their shores.  Research is risky, in that it may or may not lead to the development of marketable products.  That is the reason the U.S. government provides funding for the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program.

The federal R&D tax credit is an essential incentive for companies to invest in research.  The R&D tax credit improves productivity and encourages technology innovation and job creation.  The current R&D tax credit was first enacted in 1981 and has been renewed every year.  However, the uncertainty created by the annual extension discourages companies from investing in long-term, high-risk research until the tax credit is renewed and it tempts them to move their R&D offshore to more favorable tax environments.  IEEE-USA strongly supports permanent extension of the R&D tax credit to ensure strong domestic R&D.

While much R&D is conducted at universities and industrial laboratories, a significant amount of R&D is also conducted at government laboratories, including the Department of Defense’s (DoD) research laboratories and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) National Laboratories.  The federal government’s laboratories can be government-owned and operated or government-owned and contractor-operated, and are constructed to meet the mission needs of the sponsoring government agency.  DoD’s research laboratories, such as Naval Research Laboratory, have the mission to conduct research and development in the science and technology areas that meet DoD’s needs for advanced technology and to ensure our military superiority.  Similarly, DOE’s National Laboratories, created during and after WWII, in addition to their energy and basic science missions, have a mission to conduct R&D in nuclear weapons and are responsible for the stewardship of our nation’s nuclear stockpile.  The Sandia Laboratories, for example, have the mission to develop, engineer, and test the non-nuclear components of nuclear weapons.

In addition to R&D, federal laboratories provide facilities to train scientists and engineers to meet the government’s needs for the science and engineering workforce.  These federal laboratories are critically important to national security.  IEEE-USA strongly encourages and supports the effective use of these laboratories to address public needs.

Defense R&D Drives Innovation

Within the federal budget authority for R&D, national defense R&D at $74.6B in FY14 accounts for 52% of federal R&D funding, with the non-defense agencies at $69.8B accounting for the remaining 48%.  The DoD S&T programs are critically important to sustaining U.S. military superiority through basic sciences and advanced technologies.  The S&T programs fund research and development in federal, academic and industrial laboratories that focuses on technologies to promote defense innovations.

Defense S&T programs are important in cultivating the next generation of scientists and engineers needed for national security work.  IEEE-USA urges Congress to support STEM programs and to provide sufficient funding for the best and brightest U.S. STEM students interested in defense sciences and technologies through competitive scholarship programs, such as the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation (SMART) Program, and the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship (NDSEG) Program.

Basic research, with its long-term emphasis, leads to revolutionary advances in military capability and has dual-use civilian applications with major benefit to the general public.  Furthermore, the S&T programs develop scientists and engineers in critical disciplines, such as electrical engineering, computer science, physics, and mathematics, and provide the S&T workforce of U.S. citizens working in DoD laboratories and defense and national security industries.

While the U.S. is undergoing some tough fiscal choices in the coming year, the DoD S&T programs are too important for our national security to be cut severely.  As the U.S. reduces the number of �boots on the ground,� we must rely even more on technology to provide for national defense.  The president’s proposed FY15 budget request is well below the FY14 appropriated levels.  For example, funding for 6.1 basic research programs is down $150 million or -7%, 6.2 down from $4.6 to $4.5 billion, and 6.3 down from $5.2 to $5.0 billion, for an overall reduction of -5.5% in S&T.  IEEE-USA is urging Congress to oppose any reductions to the Defense S&T programs.  In particular, Congress is urged to provide $12.389 billion for the overall defense S&T accounts, and $2.23 billion for the 6.1 basic research accounts.  This funding level would reverse the downward trajectory, and provide for increased investment in all DoD 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 programs.

S&T and Immigration Policy

Recent news regarding the H-1B visa program and its abuses has reminded us that science and technology policy is even important to immigration policy.  The H-1B visa program is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to allow U.S. businesses to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations that require theoretical or practical application of a body of highly specialized knowledge, including but not limited to scientists, engineers, or computer programmers.  In 2013 and 2014, the cap for H-1B visas was 65,000, with an additional advanced degree exemption set at 20,000, with an unlimited number available for nonprofit research institutions, usually universities and hospitals.  U.S. businesses can file petitions for these visas.  In 2013, a total of 134,780 H-1B visa petitions were received by the USCIS, for a total of 875,322 visas which were allocated through a lottery subject to the annual cap.  As of May 2014, 172,500 petitions have already been received against the 2015 cap.  As a part of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform, legislation to increase the number of H-1B visas from 65,000 per year to 110,000 per year, and would rise further to 185,000 over the next few years. The advanced degree exemption rose from 20,000 to 25,000. The bill was passed by the U.S. Senate in mid-2013, but the House failed to act on it.

Needless to say, the H-1B visa program is of great interest to U.S. scientists, engineers and technicians, and to U.S. high-tech companies.  IEEE-USA, representing IEEE’s 205,000 U.S. members, has taken an active role in the debate on this issue.  IEEE-USA takes the position that U.S. and foreign workers should be treated fairly by requiring all participating employers to make good faith efforts to recruit U.S. workers, to use the program to augment but not replace their workforce, and to pay H-1B visa workers fair market-based wages.  Jobs should be posted on a Labor Department website prior to granting of H-1B visas so that American workers have a reasonable chance to apply. IEEE-USA opposes any increase to the H-1B cap.  While the H-1B visas are short-term work permits, IEEE-USA supports the increased immigration of skill workers and legislation using green cards to speed the high-skill immigration process.  These reforms would help to balance the needs of both U.S. workers and employers, allowing both to succeed in high-tech global markets.

IEEE-USA Committees and Policy Advocacy

To address the S&T policy issues of interest to U.S. IEEE members, IEEE-USA has chartered numerous policy committees. U.S. IEEE members of good standing can join these committees based on nomination from the relevant IEEE Society Presidents, or they can join as at-large members if they can demonstrate sufficient interest and expertise in the relevant S&T policy issues.  The policy committees include interests in career and workforce, communications, transportation, energy, intellectual property, medical technology, and research and development policy committee.  Through these committees, IEEE-USA also participates in coalitions with similarly minded S&T organizations, including Alliance for S&T Research, Coalition for National Science Funding, Council on Competitiveness, and STEM Education Coalition.

The IEEE-USA Research and Development Policy Committee (R&DPC), chaired by Sherry Gillespie in 2014, addresses a broad spectrum of S&T policy issues, except those issues that are in the interest areas of other committees such as aerospace and energy R&D.  Typically, the R&DPC prepares and disseminates positions on science and technology-related R&D policies and programs in the United States.  A policy position is a well-thought-out analysis of an issue or (set of related issues) prepared by members of the committee based on their technical and policy expertise.

One of the top priorities for the R&DPC is to advocate S&T policy that would promote healthy and vigorous electro-technology R&D for defense and civilian applications.  R&D requires funding, whether it is provided by the federal or state government or private industry.  This year, approximately 26 percent of U.S. R&D funding comes from the federal government, so it is important that we support the federal government’s R&D appropriations.  The federal budget authority for R&D in all agencies has been declining since 2010 due to sequestration in the Budget Control Act of 2011.  For Fiscal Year 2014, the total R&D budget authority rose to $144.4 billion, restoring a majority of the cuts since 2010.

The way to justify our support for R&D is to convince the public that science and technology R&D provides tremendous benefits to society.  That might seem obvious to anyone who has recently picked up a smart phone or a tablet computer.  Still, R&D often takes many years before it is eventually realized in useful devices and products for the consumer.  For example, R&D in lasers, GPS, and the Internet took almost twenty years before these became the ubiquitous technologies that we use today.

When it comes to S&T policy, engineers often feel powerless to influence it and leave it to the politicians.  However, S&T policy should be something that is good for the country; for that to happen, engineers must be engaged in developing it.  IEEE-USA, together with Congressional staffers, organized the U.S. House Congressional R&D caucus to bring to House members’ attention important S&T policy issues, such as organizing Congressional workshops.

One of the most effective ways to communicate your S&T policy interest is to participate in the IEEE-USA-sponsored Congressional Visit Day (CVD), when U.S. IEEE member will visit the Congressional offices and tell the representatives their views on the S&T policy issues.  Another effective way for engineers to influence S&T policy is to write op-eds to their local newspapers or even national newspapers such as USA Today.  Engineers can always visit their Congressperson in their district to express their policy recommendations.  Finally, there is strength is numbers.  IEEE � with its 205,000 U.S. members � can have significant influence on S&T policy issues that are important to them.  By working with the R&D Policy Committee, you can make a difference in S&T policy.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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