June 25, 2021

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‘Building Back Better’ requires a new approach to US science and technology

4 min read

Over 60 years have elapsed since the Sputnik moment, the last major redesign of the U.S. science and technology enterprise. Those organizational and process changes included the establishment of the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and ushered in decades of U.S. leadership in scientific research and development.

Today, it’s questionable whether the U.S. still holds global leadership in technology areas such as artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, quantum computing and advanced manufacturing. China’s rapid rise and stated intentions are predatory to U.S. science and technology. The global spread of advanced technologies translates to potentially greater threats and risks of misuse by malign actors. North Korea’s rapid development of advanced nuclear and missile technologies demonstrates that playing defense through sanctions and export controls is not the answer either.

Internally, the United States S&T enterprise has also undergone important changes. In the Cold War, government spending on research and development was required for developing better weapons systems to counter the Soviet Union, and technology for national security concerns took precedence over that for economic prosperity. Today, the government-industry relationship has been inverted. Private industry now spends more than double annually what the government does on research and development, which now means industry largely sets the agenda on which new technologies are a priority to be developed.

These recent changes in the technology development landscape have resulted in a crescendo of government insiders, experts and pundits alike offering recommendations on how the U.S. should respond. However, it is time to acknowledge the national science and technology enterprise needs more than a response. It needs a makeover.

Last May, Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerUSDA denies Biden trying to limit red meat: ‘This is a fabrication’ Schumer trolls Larry Kudlow with tweet about ‘plant-based beer’ With federal support, the US can recreate Silicon Valley success nationwide MORE (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Todd YoungTodd Christopher YoungWith federal support, the US can recreate Silicon Valley success nationwide Hillicon Valley: Tech companies duke it out at Senate hearing | Seven House Republicans vow to reject donations from Big Tech Lawmakers reintroduce bill to invest billions to compete with China in tech MORE (R-Ind.) introduced the Endless Frontier Act which would add a technology directorate to the National Science Foundation to fund work on AI, material science, quantum computing, robotics and more.

Think tanks and consultants have proposed a T-10/T-12 group of nations to serve as an international counter to China in the technology realm. Some have called for establishing an industrial policy that would allow the government to signal priorities and opportunities for investment. The uneven 5G rollout in the United States highlights such a need.

So far, President BidenJoe BidenOvernight Defense: Supreme Court to hear Gitmo detainee’s request for information on CIA-sponsored torture | General says preparations for Afghanistan withdrawal underway | Army replacing head of criminal investigations division How to get Americans on board with Biden’s bold climate goals OSHA sends draft emergency temporary standard for COVID-19 to OMB review MORE has elevated the Office of the Science and Technology Policy director’s role to a Cabinet-level position. His recent “Made in America” executive order intends to put $300 billion toward research and development, $700 billion for retooling American manufacturing and reinvesting in essential offshored areas such as microelectronics. The administration also has taken a tough stance on Chinese actions targeting American industries and intellectual property.

But a more fully reimagined U.S. science and technology enterprise should also identify issues on the horizon with economic or national security implications. For example, research and development as a percent of the federal budget has gone down from almost 12 percent in the mid-1960s to less than 3 percent in 2019. Is that enough to maintain U.S. leadership in critical technology areas? And what about the automation? How technology will reshape the future of work should be analyzed now so that the labor pool can be shaped appropriately.

Collectively these calls for change suggest that the current U.S. approach to science and technology is not working. Sorting through the ideas and building a coherent plan, however, needs to be more than a pick-up game. It should be high priority going forward. No less than our future economic prosperity and national security are at stake.

Daniel M. Gerstein formerly served as the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2014. He is an adjunct professor at American University and his recent book is “The Story of Technology: How We Got Here and What the Future Holds.”