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A Not-So-Innovative Office of Innovation

28 September 2007 (All day)
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U.S. Department of Commerce

Tech savvy?
Joel Harris's Technology Council faces an uphill battle.

It's rare for a U.S. government office to be scrapped, especially when it has responsibility for a topic both Democrats and Republicans agree is vital to the country's economy. But that's what happened last month, when President George W. Bush signed a bill to promote U.S. competitiveness that wiped out the Commerce Department's 2-decade-old Technology Administration. Now, the department has created another administrative entity meant to foster U.S. commercial innovation. But experts are skeptical that the tiny, captive Technology Council will do more than tread water until the next Administration takes office in January 2009.

The new council, whose meetings will not be public, is comprised of the heads of the half-dozen Commerce agencies with scientific or technical missions. It will be run by Joel Harris from within the office of Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez. Harris, a 32-year-old political operative, has worked for überstaffer Karl Rove at the White House and for former Republican Governor Bill Owens of Colorado before joining Commerce last November.

The council won't have the status, authority, or resources afforded the previous structure. In contrast to a program that once employed more than 50 people doing analyses of global innovation efforts with an annual budget that topped $10 million, Harris will have one assistant and no budget. Instead, he says the council "will draw on the resources" of its member agencies, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to discuss everything from tax policy affecting corporate research investments to technical standards for high-tech products. "Technology is a critical driver for our economy," says Harris, "and my job will be to identify and coordinate action on the most important issues."

Observers say that talk is no substitute for action, however. "A council has no way of getting anything done," says Mary Good, who led the office during the first term of the Clinton Administration. "It could be a good forum for discussion, but it's not a friendly door for start-up companies coming to learn how to navigate the government bureaucracy." Good, an inorganic chemist with extensive experience in government, industry, and academia, also thinks that technology policy needs to be managed by someone with street cred. "You need someone with technical credentials and management experience in a high-tech industry," she says. Harris majored in public affairs at the University of Denver, Good notes, and "a B.A. degree is not an appropriate background."

Harris faces other big challenges, say past and present congressional aides who have followed the issue. Although Good receives high marks for her attempts to monitor global technological innovation, they say that the office more often was a mouthpiece for Administration policy--both Democratic and Republican--rather than an important player in shaping those policies. In the end, they say, it was deemed expendable by all sides. "It's definitely an opportunity lost," says Christopher Hill of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, a veteran player in technology issues. "I can't imagine that the new council is a prescription for actually doing anything."

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