There are more than 70 presidential candidates in this year's elections, most with excruciatingly narrow agendas. The "serious" candidates, meanwhile, have all but ignored what may be the most important issue facing the country: how to continue improving infrastructure for the nation's future.
The foreign-policy debate, even in a year like this one, should not trump all. It's the rare presidential election that turns on foreign policy. But the one constant is growth.
The high rate of innovation from which the country prospered in 1980s and 1990s has leveled off. Some of that has to with corporate R&D, punished of late by declining revenues. But it's also a by-product of the '80s and '90s: As efficiency rose and business models sharpened, we began to ignore pursuits that didn't have a quantifiable return on investment. The rub is that the seed corn of the future lies in "curiosity" research, or research for which there is no particular application-and thus no ROI-in plain view.
The Bush and Kerry campaigns weigh in on technology, but it's largely lip service. The Peace and Freedom Party's Leonard Peltier lost me at "Capitalism uses our labor and natural resources to create profit for a few." The Constitution Party's Michael Peroutka lost me when I got to his problems with the New World Order. David Cobb and running mate Patricia La Marche of the Green Party back-door the issue with planks on renewable energy and global warming. "Spoiler" Ralph Nader really has no tech plank: His "Assets of America" stump-speech theme, wherein he highlights some group or person considered an asset to the democracy, has yet to mention any high-tech profession.
Technology needs to be a front-burner issue. The government doesn't have to save the day, but it should be in the game.
Just last week, in a bid for the (privately funded) $10 million Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne forayed into space for the second time in two weeks. What got Burt Rutan's craft there was good old-fashioned risk, reward and American optimism. Commercial space travel is now a whole lot closer.
But the underlying technologies of the Space Age were mostly taxpayer-funded a long time ago, when research was a noble word. If we'd had today's research environment back then, we'd still be in the driveway, working on the water pump to get our toy rockets to fly above the roofline.