Global Innovation

Today’s advances in science and technology cannot be handled by one country alone; they require international cooperation.

By David Alan Grier

I often receive quizzical looks when I tell friends that I work at GW’s Center for International Science and Technology Policy at the Elliott School of International Affairs. Some of them note that “international science and technology policy” does not seem to be one of those universal academic subjects, like literature or physics. Others have asked how science and technology can be international, as science should be science no matter where it is located.

I confess that I had some of the same questions when I became affiliated with the center four years ago. In the intervening time, I have learned that researchers in the center are dealing with perhaps the most fundamental problem of modern life: how best to use knowledge about the physical world and new technologies to support economies, countries, and peoples.

The center is home to eight faculty, 35 graduate students in our master’s program in international science and technology policy, several graduate research assistants, and a pair of staff members. It began operations in 1968, at the height of the American effort to place an astronaut on the moon, and the future of spaceflight was an early subject of study at the center. In 1970, John Logsdon joined the political science department at GW. Logsdon had written his doctoral dissertation on the decision to send astronauts to the moon. Within two years of arriving at GW, he had become the space expert, a trusted commentator on the American space program. His first television appearance was in July 1972, shortly before the end of the Apollo flights. And in 1987, he established the Space Policy Institute, now incorporated within the Center for International Science and Technology Policy.

The center has five regular faculty members: John Logsdon, Nick Vonortas, Bob Rycroft, Henry Farrell, and myself. In addition, there are three research faculty members, two of whom are part of the Space Policy Institute: Ray Williamson, Henry Hertzfeld, and Caroline Wagner. The center also hosts 8-10 visiting post-doctoral scholars per year, who come from universities and government institutes in Europe, North America, and Asia, and a visiting foreign service officer from the State Department.
The center oversees a master’s program in International Science and Technology Policy for the Elliott School and advises students in the School of Public Policy and Public Administration who are preparing doctoral dissertations on subjects in science and technology policy. It is located on the 4th floor of 1957 E Street, the new building that holds the Elliott School.

One anchor of the center’s research is our work with Korea, a country whose government has a long history of working with the center. We have research agreements with the major Korean research institutions, including its ministry of science and technology, its national science foundation, and the science and technology policy center that advises the Korean prime minister.

For my part in the global marketplace, I receive about 60 e-mail messages each day concerning a journal devoted to the history of computing and digital communication that I edit. My assistant editor is in Norwich, England, the production manager is in Long Beach, Calif., and a key department editor works in Osaka, Japan.

Many government science and technology officers have at least some training in economics. The center’s director, Nicholas Vonortas, also is an economist who does research for a dozen or so institutions, including the European Union. His most recent research has centered on innovation networks, formerly called strategic alliances; basically, he studies how scientists, universities, and companies work together to support scientific advances and technological innovation.

One example is the consortium that builds Airbus airliners. A network that includes engineering firms, financiers, manufacturers, material suppliers, and computer programmers, it is far too complicated to be managed by one person or even by one country. The center has had a series of grants from the National Science Foundation since the early 1990s to support work on innovation networks.

Another important area of center activity is R&D program evaluation. A good part of the center’s recent work in this area is for the Office of Science in the Department of Energy. “We research a new approach called real options, which is an investment approach. We examine how an organization selects among very uncertain investment options, because technology is uncertain,” Vonortas says. “The Office of Science, along with the NSF, is probably the largest source of funds for basic research in the country, so they support the project.”

One of Vonortas’ recent projects was a report he wrote for the European Commission. This past fall, he took part in a panel organized by the EC to evaluate all European research programs. “It’s a very visible activity in Europe,” Vonortas explains. “Every four years, the EU negotiates a new framework for its technology policy. In order to start negotiating the framework, there needs to be a report evaluating the achievements and disappointments of the previous four years. The work is always done with a high-level panel, which meets in Brussels.” Under the chairmanship of Erkki Ormala, a vice president of Finnish cell phone manufacturer Nokia, the panel delivered the report in December to help set EU technology policy through the year 2010.

Vonortas also works closely with Bob Rycroft, a political scientist with the center. Rycroft approaches science policy from the point of view of complexity theory, which involves looking at large, complicated organizations, such as Vonortas’ innovation networks, and trying to understand how they operate.

Much of Vonortas’ and Rycroft’s research involves large databases that Vonortas has been assembling with financial support from the NSF. These databases connect information about technical collaborations with data that includes millions of patent citations. “These databases took Nick years to construct,” Rycroft says. They have been created with the help of graduate students who work at the center.

Every month, on the second Wednesday, the center sponsors a Technology and Innovation Seminar, which is our big public forum to which some 600 people are invited. The most recent seminar speaker was Carolyn Wagner, our newest research professor, who comes to us from the Netherlands office of the RAND Corp. and studies innovation. Another recent seminar dealt with the technologies that will allow us to commercially exploit the moon. A third analyzed the process of planning technologies for tomorrow’s markets, a process we call “technology road mapping.”

Through such seminars and through their research, the center’s faculty continues to grapple with the question of how best to guide science and technology in the 21st century.

David Alan Grier is associate professor of international science and technology policy and associate dean for academic programs in GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

back to top

© 2005 The George Washington University
The George Washington University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution.