George W. Bush says he supports technology, but a growing number of onlookers have questioned his commitment.
On day 66 of his administration, the president has yet to fill six key science and technology posts. He has also proposed eliminating the budget of the Advanced Technology Program (ATP) at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and asked for de facto cuts in research-and-development (R&D) spending by the National Science Foundation — the midwife of the Internet.
The moves were seen by some as demonstrating a lack of understanding of the governments role in fostering new technologies, as well as in debates over key issues such as Internet taxation and privacy.
“It is unfortunate that there is no one in the inner circle in the White House at the moment with solid [science] training. Because such an individual can inject science and technology into discussions and can recognize decisions that could have a significant effect on the nations science and technology,” said D. Allan Bromley, a Republican.
A Yale University physicist, Bromley directed the Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President George Bush. Jack Gibbons, who also served as director of the OSTP for several years under Clinton, said the science and technology research community is concerned about the present situation.
“Early on in new administrations, major decisions [about] budgets are being made, and the present administration doesnt seem to have that understanding of the importance of having someone versed in science and technology to help set the agenda,” Gibbons said. “Its important because its the engine that pulls the whole economy.”
Bushs critics were met, however, by plenty of cheerleaders, who said they werent too concerned about lowered spending on federal research. Its too early to lambaste him for not filling key technology posts, they cautioned. The White House did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story.
A senior aide to Secretary of Commerce Don Evans said, “To the administration, technology is clearly a priority. Given the prominence and importance of the technology sector within this administration, you want to put the best team in place, and sometimes that takes awhile.”
Either way, one thing is clear: While Bushs campaign courtship of the high-tech community was straightforward, his commitment to engendering technology is not.
The Bush budget proposed suspending the funding for the ATP until the administration completes an examination of the program and decides its fate. The ATP was launched under the Bushs fathers administration to provide seed money to companies to develop technological innovations.
Getting rid of the $270-million ATP would be a “mistake,” said Dale Skeen, chief technology officer at Vitria Technology, a company that designs enterprise integration software.
“Through ATP funding [of $4 million], we were able to develop one of the core pieces required for this technology, and [become] the first to bring it to market,” he said. He pointed out that Gartner Group has predicted that the enterprise application integration sector will develop into a $3 billion to $5 billion market in the next few years.
The research Vitria performed using ATP money was “high-risk,” Skeen said. Venture capitalists would not touch it because the payoff was at least four or five years away. Over the last 10 years, ATP grantees have produced more than 100 commercial products.
The presidents budget, which must be approved by Congress, calls for increasing the coffers of the National Science Foundation by 1 percent, or $50 million. Bromley said that, adjusting for inflation, the Bush budget would cut funds to the NSF by 2.6 percent, NASA by 3.6 percent and the Department of Energy by 7.1. Together, he said, they account for most federal science and technology R&D.
While Bushs budget rankled many technology advocates, others defended the presidents approach. Steve Papermaster, president of the high-profile Texas venture capital firm Powershift Group and a big backer of Bush, dismissed complaints that the president seems oblivious to the needs of technology companies.
“I believe there is a much stronger focus on intelligently using the dollars in place,” he said. “I know there is strong support in the administration for R&D funding. Its not a lack of belief or support in R&D, but its a matter of what dollars are coming from the federal government and how they are being used.”
Papermaster said that he and other high-tech executives are regularly tapped by people in the administration — including the president — for counsel.
Melanie Gness, Dell Computers public affairs manager in Washington, D.C., said the company is generally pleased with its interactions with the administration thus far. “Bush has proactively solicited the opinions of tech companies, and also their customers, to assist him and the administration in understanding the needs of all involved parties,” she said.
CEO Michael Dell gave the Bush campaign $1,000 and donated $250,000 in “soft money” to the Republican National Committee.
Prominent venture capitalist Floyd Kvamme, a partner in the storied Silicon Valley firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and a vociferous Bush supporter during the campaign, said he remains bullish on Bush and knows that the administration is toiling hard to find people willing to accept high-level positions in government.
A longtime Republican science advocate who is privy to some of the behind-the-scenes haggling over technology policy in the administration said he knows that the White House is trying to find people. The problem is, he said, it is intent on luring executives from the private sector, and its having a hard time convincing qualified leaders to leave their struggling companies during the economic downturn, take pay cuts and enter the D.C. pressure cooker.
Outside of his cabinet, the only formal nomination Bush has offered up to the technology community is Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell. At least six other positions are unfilled, and people close to the Washington, D.C., technology circuit said there were few whispers about possible candidates, which is highly unusual.
“Its like Home Alone for the staff at every technology agency,” said Larry Irving, who was head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration under former President Bill Clinton from February 1993 until last year.
Irving said the process has become so protracted that by the time key people are in place, “they will come in the middle of all kinds of tough issues — all of the stuff before the FCC, privacy, international issues. . . . A lot of it is political.”
Irving characterized the administrations approach as “studious neglect,” but not everyone outside the Beltway is unhappy with Bushs apparent reticence. David Harris is vice president of marketing at EasyAsk, a natural language search engine company in Littleton, Mass., and he is pleased.
“While Al Gore wanted to take credit for inventing the Internet, free markets drive technology. A technology policy [from the Bush administration] can only hurt free markets in their operation.”
Charles Babcock, Sara Robinson and Todd Spangler contributed to this report.