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  • Editorial IntroductionNASA and Technology Transfer in Historical Perspective
  • Bruce E. Seely (bio)

In this issue of CTTS, we are pleased to present an essay examining changes the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has made in recent years to its technology transfer program. This essay continues the CTTS practice of publishing occasional essays submitted by practitioners engaged directly in the technology transfer process. Author Vernotto McMillan is a NASA engineer who recently directed the technology transfer program at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The changes McMillan discusses assume significance because NASA, according to science-policy expert Harvey Brooks, “has devoted more explicit thought and attention to the area (technology transfer) than any other technology-oriented federal agency” (quoted in Doctors, 1969, p. xi). And NASA’s interest and efforts predated the legal requirements of the 1980s that all federal research agencies devote more attention to ensuring that the results of research find their way into commercial arenas. Indeed, only the Department of Agriculture has sponsored a more extensive transfer and technical-assistance program. Given this lengthy history of technology transfer activities at NASA, the editors of CTTS decided to prepare an introductory essay in order to provide readers with the background and context for McMillan’s contribution. In every case of technology transfer, such an awareness of the context and history of agency activities allows a better appreciation of the challenges faced in successfully carrying out technology transfer missions. [End Page 1]

Technology Transfer Efforts by the Federal Government

NASA was not the first agency of the federal government to engage in technology transfer efforts. One might argue about which federal agency first developed technology transfer programs, but there is little disagreement with the claim that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the most extensive 19th-century program specifically designed to disseminate information and technological knowledge. Since the department’s establishment in 1862, its fundamental mission has been to help the nation’s farmers become more productive and fruitful by harnessing science and technology—that is, by transferring technology. Early efforts were largely educational. In its first year, the department released a bulletin on the sugar content of several varieties of grapes and their suitability for wine, initiating a pattern of conducting research and disseminating the results in published bulletins. This approach guided the expansion of the department’s research program during the last third of the 19th century, as both plant and animal diseases were studied and cures or solutions identified. The department also drew assistance from the Morrill Act of 1862, which established a network of land-grant colleges, one in each state, to train students in the agricultural and mechanic arts. Faculty in these schools soon joined USDA researchers in studying the most expensive insect pests and dangerous animal diseases. The results of these efforts showed in a steady stream of findings on how to limit, if not eradicate, the challenges facing the production of food for the growing American public (Agricultural Research Service Timeline, 2007; Dupree, 1957; Harding, 1980; Rasmussen, 1989; True, 1937).

It soon became clear, however, that the publication of USDA bulletins and research papers could not guarantee implementation of the researchers’ rapidly growing list of findings and suggestions. Too many farmers lacked the time or knowledge to read the reports or make sense of their recommendations. Many rural Americans, in keeping with the populist and democratic tendencies of American society, remained intensely skeptical of results from laboratory scientists. USDA officials therefore adopted two different strategies for improving the utilization of results from their various research programs, each representing a different approach to technology transfer. The first effort began in 1887, when the Hatch Act funded creation of an agricultural experiment station in every state in conjunction with the land-grant colleges. These stations were to improve the conduct of research and harness it to the practical problems facing farmers in every part of the country. With federal funding driving this new research program, [End Page 2] the agriculture experiment stations sought to align even more directly the efforts of the USDA and state university teachers on the one hand, and farmers on the other. Each university...


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