Commentary: National Medal of Technology Program

February 17, 2006. The National Medal of Technology (NMT) program was instituted by the Stevenson-Wydler Technology Innovation Act of 1980. This was Public Law No. 96-180. It is now codified, along with amendments, at 15 U.S.C. 3711. Persons involved in this NMT program variously state that its purpose is to incent innovation, reward innovators, and incent young people to study topics, such as math, sciences, and engineering, that will enable them to become innovators, or to contribute to the innovative process by becoming teachers or employees at technology related companies.

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The subject of this article is the attributes of the NMT program that relate to the question of whether this program, as provided for by the statute, and as implemented by Presidents, is well tailored for incenting creative and innovative accomplishment.

In particular, this article addresses the practice of awarding NMTs to corporations, the disproportionate number of awards given to a few companies and their employees, the award of NMTs to companies that have inhibited innovation, the exclusion of foreign citizens, the use of background checks, and the influence of political campaign contributions.

Statute. The statute provides that "There is hereby established a National Technology Medal, which shall be of such design and materials and bear such inscriptions as the President, on the basis of recommendations submitted by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, may prescribe." The OSTP, which is a part of the Executive Office of the President (OEP), is headed by John Marburger.

It further provides that "The President shall periodically award the medal, on the basis of recommendations received from the Secretary or on the basis of such other information and evidence as he deems appropriate, to individuals or companies, which in his judgment are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the promotion of technology or technological manpower for the improvement of the economic, environmental, or social well-being of the United States."

Implementation of Program. The selection process for the NMT, which is addressed in the Department of Commerce's (DOC) Technology Administration's (TA) web section on the NMT, includes a request for nominations from the public, which is published in the Federal Register. Recommendations are considered by the National Medal of Technology Evaluation Committee, the members of which are selected by the President for three year terms. However, the decision as to winners is made by the President.

TLJ spoke after the February 13 event with a DOC employee who stated that the NMT selection process is non-political and objective.

The first NMTs were awarded for the year 1985. The NMTs awarded at the February 13 ceremony were for the year 2004. In these 20 years, 129 have been awarded. (Some NMTs have been awarded to two or more individuals who collaborated on a single project. For the purposes of this article, these collaborative awards are counted as a single NMT.)

About 46 NMTs (about 36%) have been awarded for innovation in information and communications technology (ICT). These include innovations in communications, satellite, wireless, fiber-optic, computing, software programs, software languages, semiconductors, displays, and networking technologies.

IBM, or its employees, have been awarded the most NMTs -- 8. AT&T (including AT&T Bell Labs, and employees) is second with 6. Intel, Motorola and DEC (and their employees) each have 2. Although, one DEC winner was Grace Hopper, who won the award for work previously done in the service of the U.S. Navy.

That is, measured by NMT awards, IBM and AT&T account for over 30% of all innovation in ICT fields.

In contrast, Adobe, Amazon, AMD, AOL, Autodesk, Borland, Cisco, Compaq, Dell, eBay, Entrust, Google, HP, McAfee, Nokia, Novell, Oracle, Palm, Rambus, RIM, RSA Security, SAP, Skype, Sun Microsystems, Sybase, Sony, Symantec, Texas Instruments, Toshiba, Vonage, Yahoo, and many other tech companies, and their employees, have never won a NMT. Some of these companies, and many of their employees, are ineligible based upon citizenship. (Also, one Google employee, Vint Cerf, has won the NMT, but it was while in the employ of MCI, and for work done much earlier in developing internet protocols.)

Corporate Awards. The statute provides that the NMT may be awarded to "individuals or companies". One statistically observable trend over the twenty years of the NMT program is a shift from awarding the medals to people who invent and innovate, to rewarding large corporations.

During the first five years (1985-1989), only one of 30 medals was awarded to a corporation. This is 3.3%. During the second five years (1990-1994), 4 out of 45 medals were awarded to corporations. This is 8.9%. During the third five years (1995-1999), 5 out of 26 medals were awarded to corporations. This is 19.2%. During the most recent five year period (2000-2004), 10 out of 28 medals were awarded to corporations. This is 35.7%.

However, one OSTP employee told TLJ after the White House event that "there is no intended trendline".

President Bush stated at the February 13 ceremony that "we want young kids to think math and science -- math and science are cool subjects, that it's okay to be a mathematician, that it's exciting to be a scientist." He invited a high school group to attend the ceremony. Similarly, Rep. Pelosi invited a large number of young House staffers and interns to her event. She and the other participants spoke of the need to educate and incent young people to become innovators.

President Bush did not explain why giving medals to corporate CEOs and EVPs, as opposed to the people who innovate, will incent young people to pursue lives of innovation or creation.

Many ICT Awards to Two Companies. 30% of the ICT related medals have gone to just two companies, and their employees -- IBM and AT&T. In contrast, many other innovative companies, and their employees, have never been given the NMT.

There is no doubt that IBM and AT&T have contributed to ICT innovation. Whether IBM and AT&T have produced 30% of the innovation in ICT is a question best left to the judgment of the readers of this article.

Awards to Companies that Have Inhibited Innovation. The NMT program has a history of giving medals to companies (and their employees) when the companies also have a history of attempting to retard innovation, particularly in ICT.

For example, three companies that have been awarded the NMT by the President have also been sued by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for anticompetive conduct, including inhibiting innovation -- IBM, AT&T and Microsoft.

These companies have contributed to ICT innovation. And some of the government's antitrust actions may have been of questionable merit, but the fact remains that while one arm of the executive branch has sued companies for anticompetitive behavior and retarding innovation, another arm of the executive branch has been giving medals to them for advancing innovation.

As another example, some companies use regulatory processes to inhibit deployment of new and innovative technologies. Former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth wrote in his just published book, A Tough Act to Follow: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Separation of Powers [Amazon], that FCC regulation and licensing retards the deployment of new technologies that use spectrum or otherwise require FCC licenses or approvals.

He wrote that "The first application for FM radio service was submitted in 1934. Although the service was soon introduced, decades of regulatory interference limited its further development. It took a full generation for FM to develop into the pervasive and flourishing format it is today. The first cable television systems were developed in the early 1950s. For the next thirty years, the FCC succeeded in retarding the development of cable television by putting restrictions on the programming cable operators could offer their customers. The first cellular telephone application was in the 1950s; the first licenses were delayed until the 1980s. The first applications for ultrawideband technologies for spectrum languished for more than a decade."

The FCC does not act in a vacuum. It responds to pressures placed on it by incumbent companies, and by legislators and executive branch officials, who in turn are often influenced by incumbent companies.

One company that has been particularly skilled over the decades in competing through regulatory processes is AT&T. And, it is one of the companies that has been most rewarded by the NMT program.

Exclusion of Foreign Citizens. One of the selection criteria for the NMT is being a U.S. citizen or company. This requirement is not found in the statute. The statute merely provides that the award is for "improvement of the economic, environmental, or social well-being of the United States". President Bush stated in his February 13 speech that government policy should be "making sure that we've got the future scientists and mathematicians living right here in the United States of America".

President Bush did not explain why persons who have improved the economic and social well being of the U.S., and are persons "living right here" in the U.S., should be disqualified from receiving the NMT. Nor did he discuss how this restriction incents innovative people to come to the U.S. to study, work, or start businesses. Nor did he discuss how this restriction incents foreign citizens graduating from U.S. universities with degrees in math, science and technology to remain in the U.S.

Background Checks. A DOC employee who spoke with reporters before the February 13 White House event stated that the selection process for NMTs includes a government background check.

Throughout history many of the most creative and innovative people have had problems with government background checks. Many creative and innovative people have been burned at the stake, beheaded, or otherwise executed. Others have been imprisoned, exiled, prosecuted, persecuted or censored. Sometimes this governmental reaction arises out of the very nature of creative and innovative activity; it disrupts existing orders, business operations, and ways of thinking. Also, many creative and innovative people are by nature rebellious and defiant. And, many have been religious, ethnic, or political outsiders. Finally, many have personal weaknesses unrelated to their creative activities. The consequence of these factors is that historically creative and innovative people have not fared well in government background checks.

As recently as the 1950s, the U.S. government was involved in limiting and damaging the careers and activities of scientists, writers, and film makers when background checks produced evidence of their actual, or imagined, un-American activities.

The award of a NMT confers no power, privilege, office, or access to information upon the awardee. The statute does not require government background checks. The DOC web site does not articulate the basis for this selection criteria.

Campaign Contributions. Finally, there is the matter of the relationship between political campaign contributions and the award of NMTs.

Motorola received a NMT for the second time on February 13. FEC records show that there is a Motorola political action committee that makes substantial contributions to federal candidates. Moreover, it give more to Republicans than to Democrats.

Gen-Probe also received a NMT. Henry Nordhoff, its Ch/P/CEO, was present to receive the medal. FEC records show that Nordhoff gave to Bush-Cheney 2004 and other Republican candidates.

Finally, there is the award to PACCAR. Its CEO, Mark Pigott, stood on the stage with President Bush to receive the medal on behalf of his company.

FEC records show that he gave $25,000 to the Republican National Senatorial Committee (RNSC) and another $25,000 to the Republican National Committee last August. He gave $15,000 to the RNSC in February of 2004. He gave $25,000 to the 2004 Joint State Victory Committee.

He gave more to committees. He gave to Bush Cheney. He gave to individual candidates. His family gave. The Pigott family contributions to Republicans in recent years are too numerous to be described in this article.

PACCAR was given the NMT for "development and commercialization of aerodynamic, lightweight trucks". Other companies have incorporated new and lighter materials, and aerodynamic and hydrodynamic designs, into their transportations products, including trucks, aircraft, cars, bicycles, and boats. None of these other companies received a NMT at this ceremony.

PACCAR is just one of hundreds of companies that has participated in generic industry trends. It has not distinguished itself from the many other companies on the basis of its contributions to technological innovation.

Giving PACCAR a NMT creates the appearance that PACCAR has distinguished itself by developing more efficient and aerodynamic methods for transporting bulk cash into the accounts of Republican candidates and organizations.

And, this appearance is counterproductive to the underlying purposes of the NMT program.

Former President Clinton also gave some NMTs to politically active persons. Ron Brown, who was his Secretary of Commerce, was highly innovative in generating campaign contribution for Clinton-Gore and Democrats. He received a NMT following his death while in government service. Also, Clinton gave NMTs to three persons who gave money to Republicans, including Norman Augustine (1997), Ray Dolby (1997), and Dean Kamen (2000).