In technology, as in other spheres, President Bill Clinton’s ambitions as he enters his final two years in office are pretty pale shadows of his earlier grandiose plans.
The president’s Budget proposal, released on 1 February, featured new technology initiatives, as expected, but nothing of great scope or significance to industry.
In 1993, the president promised ambitious technology programmes in the face of faltering US industrial competitiveness. For example, $1bn a year was to be spent on technology support grants under the Advanced Technology Programme (ATP). Clinton’s team of young economic advisers envisaged that the ATP would grow even larger if it worked.
Most of these advisers are gone now, and the ATP’s expansion has been curtailed by the Republican Congress. The US’s recent industrial success has taken the edge off the argument that government needed to infuse industry with ‘competitiveness’.
Another early favourite of the administration, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), is now somewhat in limbo. It involved Detroit’s big three car makers in partnership with the government, but one has since been bought by Daimler-Benz. Car industry executives say there has been no White House response on the takeover.
In the technology section of Clinton’s State of the Union address to Congress last month, the emphasis was on a modest computer science research programme to start next year. Funding for ATP and PNGV is up a little in the proposal for the year 2000, to around $250m each. The computer initiative will provide $360m for academics and government researchers to buy supercomputers and learn to use them to model complex problems.
The focus is on utilisation not hardware, with experts learning how to gather and direct vast flows of data for meaningful analysis on supercomputers. Most of the money will go to the Defense Advanced Research Projects and the National Science Foundation and Agency organisations deeply involved in the origins of the internet, and which the Congress trusts to spend the money wisely.
The initiative was announced by vice president Al Gore, who continues to take a lead on science and technology policy, albeit with a little less public vigour than in previous years.
Gore, runaway favourite for the Democratic nomination in next year’s presidential election, is fascinated by these issues to a degree rare in a politician. As he tries to shake off his public image as a nerd, he may give them a low profile in the election run-up. But if he wins, technology will hold an exalted status in his administration.