How Reagan inspired a buzzword

Deborah Wince-Smith has been connecting the dots of science, technology and economics for more than 25 years.

As head of the nonprofit Council on Competitiveness, Wince-Smith counts on a brain trust of top business leaders, scientists, academics and labor groups to identify “over-the-horizon” innovations that will emerge within the next five to 10 years.


“The council is always looking out ahead and developing road maps for what the country needs to do that are integrative,” she said in a recent interview with The Hill. 

“We don’t just focus on research and development or skills or tax policy or trade agreements. We look across to connect the dots to all these things, and that’s complex, and it sometimes makes our work a lot harder.”

A former Reagan administration official, Wince-Smith rose through the ranks at the council, starting out as senior fellow in 1993 on the way to becoming president and chief executive in 2001. 

Under Wince-Smith’s leadership, the council focuses on “what do we need to do as a country to pull together the public-private partnerships to do something about it.”

To that end, the group recently announced a three-year partnership with the Energy Department to identify challenges in U.S. clean energy production and the manufacturing of energy efficient products. The end goal is to dramatically boost production by reducing costs for firms, in turn making them more competitive on the global market. 

Wince-Smith’s big picture approach dates back to her time in the Reagan White House’s Office of Science and Technology, where she helped steer the U.S. relationship with Japan. 

The experience at the White House was transformative. While working on the renewal of a science agreement between the U.S. and Japan and dealing with a semiconductor fight between the two nations in 1986, Wince-Smith started to see clearly the links between trade policy and scientific research.

 “What was very exciting about that was that I was really the first official working in science and technology that looked at this from a trade and economic perspective, as opposed to it being just an instrument of foreign policy,” she said.

The lopsided science agreement that existed at the time with Japan allowed hundreds of Japanese researchers to work at government agencies like the National Institutes of Health, but without Japan returning the favor. That prompted Wince-Smith to tell her colleagues the deal was ultimately “an economic issue.”

“We need to restructure this agreement to deal with the competitiveness challenges of Japan,” she said. 

At the time, competitiveness wasn’t even in the government’s carousel of buzzwords. 

“You never even heard the word, it was not a concept,” she said. 

By the late 1980s, the U.S. had tipped the scales to at least even in its relationship with Japan, and in the process, created a model that could be applied to similar agreements worldwide, she said. 

“It was a very fervent time for understanding that you could not divorce science and technology leadership from really difficult trade issues, trade protectionism, with countries like Japan that were targeting the crown jewels of American industry, but in a very unfair way.”

The sea change on the competitiveness front came in 1987, when the Reagan White House nixed the sale of a U.S. semiconductor company to one of Japan’s giant electronics companies. 

“It was really the first time that a case was looked at for economic implications of an acquisition, instead of being national security alone,” she said. 

For Wince-Smith, “it was very much” the dawn of global competitiveness and the genesis of how she “switched lenses” to that focus. 

Fast-forward to the 21st century, when many take for granted the technology that has emerged from visions and issue papers. But much of that technology is at risk from an alarming rise in intellectual property theft.

“It is being stolen at phenomenal rates, and the scale and scope of it coming out of China is massive, the theft,” she said. “So much of the value in innovation is intangible assets, the know-how as well as the finished thing. It’s a huge, huge issue.”

She is working separately on a report set to come out in May that is seeking solutions and looking to put “some teeth into … economic consequences” for nations that pirate technology. 

The challenges provide the council with more ways to seek out long-term solutions that not only create economic growth, but also provide a higher standard of life for every American. 

Wince-Smith views the U.S. economy as an innovation wheel of sorts — with people and science at the center, inextricably linked to every sector of the economy, from education to energy to intellectual property.

Moving rapidly forward is the “convergence of the digital, genetic and nanotechnology revolutions,” she said. “Those three aren’t really in separate stovepipes; they are coming together.”

She also noted a fourth revolution that’s coming together — the “cognitive,” exploring the whole frontier of the brain. She called President Obama’s recent announcement about mapping the brain “fantastic.” 

“All of the things we’re talking about all come back to people. If you don’t have the skilled people in all parts of the innovation system, then we’ll fall behind, and that’s a great concern now,” she said.

“It’s the jobs that have judgment, insight and other things that we have to really be focusing on.”

The council also recently launched a new initiative called the National Engineering Forum, which is aimed at increasing the nation’s technical talent and moving engineering to the forefront. 

“The real issue is the rest of the world is catching up, and the rest of the world is making the investments in innovation capability and universities, research institutes and in training their people,” she said. 

For the U.S., she said the path forward is selling high-quality products around the world that are backed by homegrown innovation. 

“Innovation is absolutely our lifeblood.”