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Executive Summary

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Executive Summary

This report presents the results of the third biennial National Critical Technologies Review. This report presents 27 National Critical Technology Areas in seven categories, as shown in Table S.1. It includes information about the state of development in each technology area, and about the US competitive position relative to the worldwide leading edge technology developments.

The Need for a National Critical Technologies Report

The development and use of technologies remains a driving force in U.S. economic prosperity and national security. Maintaining the strength and competitiveness of the U.S. technological enterprise, therefore, continues to be vital. In the current climate of intensifying global competition, rapid technological change, and geopolitical uncertainties, the need for identifying critical technologies for concentration of effort becomes even greater.

This report designates the technology areas and specific technologies which constitute priorities for the federal R&D effort. Specifically, it is intended to

  • Identify necessary areas of focus for R&D;
  • Help leverage limited resources most effectively in times when science and technology budgets are not growing as fast as they once did;
  • Help coordinate government R&D activities by supplying agencies with a common set of priorities and providing Congress with information to support policy decisions;
  • Seve industry as a guide for possible areas of cooperative R&D.

Technology selection criteria and detailed rationale are found in Appendix B.

Technology categories and technology areas within them are presented in alphabetical order. Although all of the technology areas included in this report are essential to economic prosperity or national security, it is difficult to find a rank order which would reflect the contribution to these two overarching goals of technologies as different as, for exampl e, biocompatible materials and fuel cells. As a result, no priority is implied by the order in which categories are presented.

This report does not address issues of technology diffusion. It is important to note that leading in technology development does not necessarily imply having the leading share of the market. In order to reap the economic benefits of technological development it is important to move technology out of the laboratory into products and services, something that requires additional skills and investments. While it is exciting to note that the United States has a leading technological position in critical technology areas, this should not lead to the conclusion that the nation cannot do bett er in world-wide markets for products and services based on critical technologies.

Overview of Critical Technology Areas

The report divided critical technologies into seven categories: Energy, Environmental Quality, Information and Communication, Living Systems, Materials, Manufacturing, and Transportation. Based on a comparison of technical positions, the U.S. is either at parity or in the lead in almost every technology area identified. This is shown in Figure S.1.[1] It should be noted, however, that the size of the U.S. lead has either declined or remained constant between 1990 and 1994, which arg ues for continued U.S. investment in technology development if the U.S. position is to be preserved.


Critical technologies in the energy category fall into three general areas-- efficiency; energy storage, conditioning, distribution, and transmission; and improved generation. Technologies in the Energy Efficiency area--which include building technologie s and non-internal combustion propulsion systems--increase U.S. economic productivity by increasing economic output per unit of energy input and by offering a growing export business opportunity; they also contribute to U.S. national security by reducing dependency on foreign energy sources and, when exported, by moderating energy demand in developing countries. Building technologies improve the competitivenes s of U.S. construction and building industries in world markets by making the sale of turn-key installations more likely and make a small contribution to national security by allowing more efficient management of facilities that frees funds for other uses . Although U.S. technology now competes favorably in this area with the most efficient Japanese and European products, it still trails Japanese and European firms in some products. Non-internal-cumbustion propulsion systems--particularly in "clean cars" --could provide a significant advantage to a sector comprising one-seventh of the U.S. economy. Japan and Europe are about even with the United States in electric vehicle (EV) technology, and Japanese AC motor technology lags that of the United States but is probably ahead of that of the Europeans.

Technology sub-areas in the Energy Storage, Conditioning, Distribution, and Transmission area--including advanced batteries, power electronics, and capacitors--are enabling for both economic prosperity with industrial, commercial, and residential a pplications, and national security with military applications. In advanced battery technologies, the Japanese are slightly lagging U.S. capabilities, although aggressive research is improving the Japanese position, and European firms are slightly behind U.S. firms. In power electronics, the United States is behind in high-power, solid-state switch technology except for a few niche areas. In capacitor technologies, the United States is the world leader, especially those suited for military applications, Japan is behind the United States and is losing ground, and Europe is also behind the United States and probably losing ground.

Technology sub-areas in Improved Generation--including gas turbines, fuel cells, next-generation nuclear reactors, advanced power supplies, and renewable energy--are critical to economic prosperity because of the confluence of rapidly growing demand for e lectricity worldwide, increasing environmental pressures from electric generation, and utility deregulation. In gas turbine technologies, Europe and Japan are slightly behind the United States in developing rotating machinery suitable for high-efficiency power generation. In fuel cells, the United States is the overall world leader across a wide range of fuel cell technologies but Japan is a very strong competitor in some segments, while European fuel-cell projects are highly dependent on foreign techno logy. In next-generation nuclear reactors, U.S. firms have remained competitive in design services and are active members of international alliances, because most current reactors are based on U.S. technology; however, the United States is likely to fall behind in next-generation reactors because of large funding cuts for reactor R&D. In advanced pulsed power supplies, Russia is slightly ahead of the United States, while Europe and Japan are behind the world leaders overall but are at parity in some niche areas, such as switching capacitors and transformers. In renewable energy, Europe and the United States are about even in solar thermal energy technology, slightly ahead of Japan; in photovoltaics, Japan is continuing to lag slightly behind the United States and Europe; Europe is slightly ahead of the United States in wind turbine technology, while Japan lags behind the world leader in innovative turbine designs; and Europe is slightly ahead of the United States in biofuels, with Eur ope leading in biodiesel fuels and the United States leading in ethanol production from biomass.

Overall, the United States is generally on par with the best in the world in critical technologies that fall into the energy category.

Environmental Quality

Critical technologies in the environmental quality category fall into three general areas--monitoring and assessment; remediation and restoration; and pollution avoidance and control. Technologies in the Monitoring and Assessment area include integrated environmental monitoring and remote assessment of biosystems. The former contribute to such national goals as the health of the U.S. population, job creation and economic growth, the efficiency of the physical infrastructure, and the ability for ecosyste m management and ex-post monitoring and evaluation to understand how humans interact with the environment. These technologies also contribute to national security and warfighting capabilities by, for example, helping to assure non-proliferation of weapon s of mass destruction and by providing accurate information about battlefield environments, thus increasing troop effectiveness and reducing casualties. Within this area, Russia is behind the United States in remote sensing technologies; the United State s leads in satellite-based, multi-spectral data processing technology capability, followed by Russia (based on military capability), France, and Japan; and in the specific area of qualitative risk assessment tools, Europe lags the United States, with Japa n further behind.

Development of timely and cost-effective remediation and restoration technologies is critical, both to reduce costs to the U.S. economy in addressing indigenous contamination problems and to promote U.S. competitiveness in global remediation markets. The se technologies can contribute to job creation and economic growth, both by creating new jobs and by helping reduce clean-up cost liabilities faced by many manufacturers and can contribute to the health of the U.S. population by reducing risks associated with contaminants in the environment. There is general parity between the United States and Europe in bioremediation technology--the United States has conducted more basic research in this area, but Europe has successfully used U.S. technology for relati vely large-scale, on-site remediation efforts. While Japanese firms are capable of being major players in bioremediation technology, they appear to lag slightly in actual demonstration of this capability. In nuclear wastes storage and disposal, Europe i s slightly ahead of the United States in technologies for decontamination and decommissioning of nuclear reactors, with Japanese firms at about the same technology level as U.S. firms.

Pollution avoidance and control technologies contribute to the security of food, water, and air, to lowering costs of research and development activities, and to the health of the population. Foreign firms are slightly behind U.S. firms in separation tec hnologies, although Europe is ahead in nuclear applications because of the policy decision to manage waste as it is produced rather than to accumulate it for future treatment. In non-nuclear separation technologies, European firms are behind U.S. firms, who have superior technology. Japanese firms are behind U.S. firms in both nuclear and non-nuclear separation technologies.

Overall, although the United States is currently a leader in many technologies in this category, trends indicate that other countries are making progress in attaining the same level of technology.

Information and Communication

Perhaps more than any other technical area, information and communication technologies are what make our society "modern." The ability to rapidly access and share vast amounts of information has been the driving force in economic growth and improved quality of life in the latter part of the twentieth century. Accordingly, information and communication technologies are essential to meeting national goals in economic growth and national security, and in helping other technical areas to realize their full potential. The technologies identified as critical include those contributing to the leading edge of components, communications, computer systems, information management, intelligent complex adaptive systems, sensors and software and toolkits. Of these areas, components, computer systems, communications, information management, and software and toolkits have the highest potential to contribute to economic growth. Computer systems (particularly high performance systems), intelligent complex adaptive systems and sensors have significant potential to contribute to national security.

With the exception of high-definition displays and high-resolution scanning, the U.S. is ahead, or at least at parity, in almost all the fields comprising the Information and Communication technology category. The U.S. invented and widely deployed such t echnologies as UNIX, the Ethernet, the Internet, LANs, and most of the field of artificial intelligence; U.S.-developed operating systems for personal computers are the world standard; our digital HDTV plans lead the world. The National Display Initiati ve will help to fill in the gap in high-definition displays, and in most areas where we have some weakness, U.S. firms are forming alliances with other firms in Japan and Europe, leading to multinational initiatives.

Living Systems

New industries such as biotechnology are emerging as knowledge is gained into the highly energy- and material- efficient processes employed by living systems for self- propagation and the formation of functional structures such as organs, shells, or musculo-skeletal systems. This knowledge is being applied not only to the agricultural and aquacultural production of food plants and animals, but human health protection and medical care. The Living Systems technology category includes four technology areas: biotechnology, medical t echnology, agriculture and food technology, and human systems.

Biotechnology is enabling both established and newly emerging industries to design, create, and produce highly specific substances derived from molecular structures and processes in naturally occurring biological systems. Currently, the two most important areas of biotechnology application are human health care and agriculture.

While the United States is the overall world leader in biotechnology, Europe and Japan pose strong competition in specific areas. The United States does more basic research in genetic engineering and molecular biology than any other country. Computer based methods for analyzing and modeling molecular sequences and interaction, as well as facilitating collaboration among widely dispersed groups have contributed to the rapid evolution and application of knowledge in these areas.

The integration of knowledge and practice of many technologies is essential to an effective and efficient system for protecting the public health and delivering health care services. Innovative biomedical research and information-based integrated decision support systems leading to prevention, more effective therapies and minimizing the need for long term care hold the key to advances that can restrain costs while enhancing the quality of public health and health care. Key technologies in this area are integrated information systems, functional diagnostic imaging, biocompatible materials, and the rapid identification of bacteria and viral infectious agents.

Global agriculture is facing the challenges of increasing human population, accelerating need for food, fiber, feed and raw materials for other industries, and a declining amount of cultivated land per capita. Sustainable agricultural systems must address the development of environmentally sound, productive, economically viable and socially desirable agriculture. Aquaculture is currently the most rapidly growing agricultural segment and will play a significant role in providing a stable source of fish protein in the face of declining yield of oceanic fisheries.

The human-machine interface is a critical component in a number of complex integrated systems such as power and communications grids, air traffic control systems, and highly automated process control and manufacturing systems. Such systems typically produce much more data than a human is able to digest in a time-critical situation, so the main job of the interface is to present the data in a form easily understandable by the human and to provide an easy means of interacting with the system to ensure continued safe and reliable operations. The United States has a pre-eminent technical position in understanding human capabilities, behavior and performance while interacting with engineered systems and environments, and in implementing advanced human- machine interfaces.


The technologies in the Manufacturing technology category support much of the industry in the United States. In some cases, the technologies improve our ability to make a familiar substance such as polyethylene. In other cases, as with some new alloys, they open the use of a new material by producing it economically, changing a material from a laboratory curiosity to a commercial force. In still other cases, the technologies improve our abilities to design and to create a product, and to manage that overall process. This document divides manufacturing technologies into three technology areas: Discrete Product Manufacturing, Continuous Materials Processing, and Micro/Nanofabrication and Machining.

Discrete Product Manufacturing encompasses the most important technological developments in improving our ability to create manufactured products, from the ordinary--an automobile or a television, to the more exotic-- a cooled turbine blade. As such, the technologies are important across the breadth of the manufacturing sector, both for the economic health of that sector and for its ability to create leading edge weaponry for the military.

Continuous Materials Processing concentrates on the developments of most importance to the chemical, petrochemical, and some solid materials industries. These are characterized by a continuous production of materials, which are usually then used in other processes or products. These industries, and thus these technologies, are important both economically and for the military. These technologies also often have the potential to reduce the harmful environmental effects either of alternative industrial processes or of other processes, as energy generation. This is both an end in itself and a growing industry in its own right.

Microfabrication refers to the creation of physical structures with a characteristic scale size of one micron, a millionth of a meter. Historically, this has been, and remains, important to the electronics industry, although other applications have also arisen. Nanofabrication refers to the creation of smaller structures, down to the control and arrangement of individual atoms. Such techniques are still developing, but offer fascinating potential. Both areas are also developing rapidly.

The United States is either on par or in the lead in all technology areas in this technology category. While this is not true in some individual technologies, such as the low and medium technology plastic packaging for semiconductor chips in which the Japanese lead, the United States either leads outright or is well-positioned for the future in all other specific technologies included in the report.


Materials allow the achievement of a wide range of national goals. Improved materials can help our economic prosperity, our health, our security, and the quality of our lives. A few materials contribute only to a single national goal. For example, our national security is enhanced by new combat aircraft that use stealth materials to help control their signature, but such materials are not at all desirable in use for commercial aircraft which need to be visible and easily identifiable. Such limitation is the exception, not the rule.

The ubiquitous nature of materials, entering into almost every industry and activity, makes materials a key set of enabling technologies for a multitude of goals. Advanced alloys, ceramics, composites, and polymers are enabling technologies for, among other ends, high-performance aerospace and surface transportation. This supports both civil and military systems. Functional materials, such as diamond thin films, can provide enhanced physical and electronic characteristics for a wide range of applications in the manufacturing and electronics industries. In turn, this couples not just to economic goals, but to other goals, from environmental to space exploration. New materials are also key to many manufacturing developments, whether through improving existing products or through creating entirely new possibilities.

The diversity of materials is also represented in the broad range of specific technologies listed under the sub-areas. No single assessment of the performance of the United States could be appropriate across such a range, and indeed, the international position of the United States in Materials is mixed. Although generally leading, there are some areas where the lead is shrinking or a lag has appeared. Some of these assessments are familiar, as the foreign lead in materials for semiconductor manufacturing, or the U. S. lead in polymer matrix composites. Others may be less familiar, as the good U. S. position in ceramic composites, where we do not yet lead the Europeans, but appear better positioned than the competition for the emerging market. Our long concentration on materials science has paid dividends.


The following technology areas are addressed in the transportation category. Aerodynamics, Avionics and Controls, Propulsion and Power, Systems Integration, and Human Interface. At a more specific technology level, the report discusses aircraft and surface vehicle aerodynamics, aircraft and spacecraft avionics, surface transportation controls, aircraft turbines and spacecraft power systems. At the level of systems integration and human-machine interface, the report discusses intelligent transportation systems, spacecraft and aircraft integration, human factors engineering (as it relates to transportation systems) and spacecraft life support systems. The U.S. has preeminence in most transportation areas, except for Western European developments in commercial ai rcraft technology, the leadership of France, Germany and Japan in fielding high speed rail systems, and German and Japanese advances in mag-lev technology.

The area of intelligent transportation systems is one where the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan are all engaged in various private and public efforts to develop more effective and efficient surface transportation systems. This area will ultimately involve radical changes in both vehicular technology and infrastructure that have the capacity to alter the American transportation system by better incorporating modern information technology into virtually every phase of passenger and freight transportation including its intermodal elements.

Activities Related to Critical Technologies

A significant proportion of the approximately $70 billion devoted annually by the federal government to the support of R&D directly involves the development of a broad range of critical technologies. With the exception of the Department of Defense which has a significant presence in most areas, agencies concentrate in only a few technology areas which are relevant to the performance of their missions.

The portion of federal R&D budget which is directly applicable to critical technologies is "applied research" and "development"as these terms are generally defined for all federal agencies. In the case of the Department of Defense, this includes those activities which fall within DOD's Budget Activities 6.2 (Exploratory Development) and 6.3 (Advanced Development). Similarly, for other agencies, it includes those activities that do not generally constitute "basic research," although there are some exceptions.

For those technologies that are relevant to the missions of multiple agencies, cross-agency coordination is becoming increasingly important. The cabinet-level National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) provides a formal mechanism by which the vast Federal R&D enterprise can be coordinated, priorities can be explicitly set, and unnecessary duplication of effort can be eliminated. The NSTC's participation in the preparation of this report is a reflection of its charter.

[1] The figure shows both the U.S. position relative to the leading edge of technology development in Europe and Japan, and the trends between 1990 and 1994. The current position is indicated by the position of the symbol on the five-point scale from "Substantial Lag" to "Substantial Lead." The trends are indicated by the shape of the symbol and the direction in which it is pointing: the circle for lack of change, and a triangle for either increasing or decreasing lead/lag. The rate of change is not indicated in the figure.

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