Science, technology, and public administration: The government-university nexus

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The relations between governments and universities, particularly with respect to science and technology, is traced from the agricultural period and the land-grant era to the research and development era involving particularly the fields of medicine and defense, to the modern era which is lacking a coherent national policy. Among the institutional relations that are critical to science, technology, and public administration, those involving government-university linkages stand out. In the past, there have been two major eras of government/university relations: the land-grant era and the federal mission agency era. More recently, a third era has emerged—what we call the new federalist era. The first period featured a decentralized institutional model focused on a single economic sector: agriculture. The second was characterized by a more centralized federally dominated approach. This third era is still evolving. Its primary ingredients include university ties with many segments of industry. And government includes that as well as federal agency roles. During the land-grant era, dating from 1862, a large number of universities, devoted initially to problems of agriculture and the mechanical arts, were created. The era was characterized by a research system involving a federal agency, state government, universities, and an industry of individuals with little or no research capability. It was a highly decentralized system, responsive to multiple needs throughout the country, with a heavy emphasis on technology transfer. It gave the initial impetus to the university in fashioning an applied role. Whatever else may be said about this system—good or bad—it certainly made the American agricultural industry more productive. In the federal mission agency era, dating from World War II, federal agencies spent vast sums to pursue national goals in defense, space, energy, and other fields by creating programs supporting universities. On the expectation there would eventually be practical payoffs, federal agencies supported basic research largely on the universities’ terms. States were not involved in any significant degree. Industry was, of course, very much a part of this system, but in the case of defense and space, it was primarily as developers of technology for government rather than users of technology for civilian goals. This system worked unevenly. The greatest continuity was the Department of Defense (DOD) as a sponsor of research and development, including research in universities. That is what was seen as a problem in the era of Vietnam. For many critics, it is a problem today, with Star Wars merely the most dramatic example of a too close university involvement with DOD. There were discontinuities in most of the areas of federal mission agency support. At the time of Minnowbrook I, the desire was to redeploy science and technology to other mission areas that would improve the human condition. The process was difficult, as various domestic agencies had problems establishing and maintaining relations with science and technology. In the 1980s, most of the civilian programs were cut back and the energy program was slated to be eliminated altogether. Today, the United States research system, and thus the government-university partnership, is in a new-federalist era of science and technology. Here, the federal government, state governments, industry, and universities cooperate and collide as each tries to make the most of several new technologies now emerging with a perceived high economic potential. Meanwhile, the university-DOD relationship has been rebuilt after a decade of rupture. In an environment of increasing global competition, the old institutional models are giving way to novel arrangements. What has happened is that a new mission—a new problem or opportunity—has become more salient in the 1980s. This is the mission of economic development and competitiveness. Economic competitiveness is a broad and diffuse mission. The juxtaposition of this mission with science and technology is because a good part of this competition is expected to be waged on the frontier of new technology. Japan, in particular, has made technological leadership in the cluster of fields cited above a national imperative, and other nations are following suit. (1) No federal mission agency is clearly identified with, much less in charge of, a mission. Indeed, the mission has not been officially proclaimed but exists only as a rallying cry. The question to be resolved is whether the present scattered response is enough, or if a more comprehensive national policy should be established. If established, should a new federal mission agency be set in motion to lead the assault—perhaps one modeled after the Japanese MITI? If so, how would it relate to the other players? Given the role of the states in particular, it would seem that a cooperative model drawing on federal and state resources might be designed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)857-861
Number of pages5
JournalInternational Journal of Public Administration
Issue number6-8
StatePublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Business and International Management
  • Public Administration


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