By Tom Still

MADISON – It happened so fast during Friday night’s presidential debate that you probably missed it: Democrat Barack Obama said it would be a good idea to invest more in federal science and technology programs.

That was the end of the discussion. Because it was imbedded in Obama’s answer to another question, Republican John McCain never got around to explaining how he feels about federal investment in research and development. (Well, he did mock a $3-million study of DNA diversity among bears in Montana, apparently without knowing farmers, ranchers and Montana Republicans sought the earmarked study to help prove plentiful bears don’t belong on the endangered species list. But that’s another story…)

At some point in the three remaining presidential or vice presidential debates, Americans deserve to hear what both candidates think about the condition of U.S. science and technology and how the federal government should use its R&D programs to foster innovation – the kind of innovation that will keep our nation secure and prosperous. Here are three priorities worth debating.

Extending the Small Business Innovation Research grant program: Created in 1982 to speed the transfer of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace, the SBIR program requires federal research agencies with large outside R&D budgets to award at least 2.5 percent of that money to small businesses. The program has helped thousands of small businesses over the hump by partially financing R&D critical to commercializing products and services. Scores of companies in Wisconsin, some with hundreds of good-paying jobs today, owe part of their success to SBIR. Competing proposals in Congress would both extend SBIR and its related programs, but they are divided on for how long (five years versus 14 years), how much to spend and how to control outside investments.

If the candidates want to point to a federal program that has worked, they should hold up the example of SBIR and call for a lengthy extension.

Funding the America COMPETES legislation: One of the relatively few bills that passed the most recent Congress with bipartisan support was America COMPETES, which was a response to recommendations contained in a National Academy of Sciences report and a related report by the Council on Competitiveness. The act focuses on three primary areas of importance to maintaining and improving U.S. innovation: (1) effectively doubling research investment; (2) strengthening educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics from elementary through graduate school; and (3) developing an innovation infrastructure. So far, American COMPETES has not been fully funded, even while evidence mounts that other nations are gaining ground on U.S. science and technology and that we are producing fewer scientists, engineers and mathematicians. More merit-based investments at the federal level can also stave off a dangerous Balkanization of R&D at the state level, where a relative handful of big-spending states could make it harder for smaller centers of innovation to survive.

It took the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 to spur an earlier generation of federal R&D; maybe the next president will see a similar emergency in energy independence and economic security.

Removing bottlenecks at the Patent Office and the FDA: One reason why new drugs cost so much is unnecessary delays in getting those innovations to market; the same holds for inventions in other sectors. The U.S. Patent and Trade Office is dramatically understaffed because fees it collects are diverted to other federal uses. Meanwhile, the average time it takes for a patent to win approval has doubled in 15 years. When a patent takes a long time to be issued, the technology it protects may become obsolete and reach the end of its commercial life. Reducing that time is critical to inventors. The situation is similar in the Food and Drug Administration, where the drug-approval process has become more cumbersome. Life-saving drugs are waiting in the pipeline. As the president of the leading biotechnology trade group recently noted, “Our industry is led by some very, very brilliant scientists, but it is critical that the FDA have personnel available to review and understand their work.”

American innovation has kept the nation free and prosperous for more than 200 years. It’s well worth spending a few minutes on the subject during one of the debates.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.