In the past 50 years, the world’s scientific, economic, and production capabilities have shifted away from US dominance. China is now the world’s largest producer and second largest market. But the US faces equal or greater challenges at home, where economic inequality has increased, social mobility has declined, and political polarization is on the rise.
The United States is currently facing both internal and external challenges, but our intellectual and institutional foundations are not strong enough to develop solutions for them. Different experts have made conflicting proposals, some advocating for slowing the progress of technology, while others argue for increasing funding for science and technology. None of these proposals are likely to meet all of the objectives set by experts and legislators, including improving national security, increasing the number of good jobs, and succeeding in global trade.
win-win technology choices that achieve multiple national objectives are possible with the right incentives. Christophe Combemale and his coauthors have shown that not all technology leads to wage and skill polarization; indeed, many of the technologies on today’s critical technology lists may lead to better jobs for high school graduates and strengthen national security at the same time.
I have argued that building the infrastructure of the future, like smart high-speed transit systems, dynamic electric grids with renewables, and broadband internet access, will increase jobs in underserved areas more quickly, improve social welfare for all citizens, and boost the productivity and resilience of industry. If this infrastructure is domestically procured, it could rebuild US manufacturing.
Tranlating this into policy terms, we need to design and implement a portfolio of investments that enable the United States to achieve multiple objectives—including but not limited to prosperity, security, and social welfare—simultaneously. This will necessitate building the analytical tools and institutional structures necessary to enable policymakers to identify and invest in opportunities where returns may be realized across multiple objectives.
There has long been interest in the relationship between security and social objectives, but no research has been done to quantify trade-offs and win-wins across the full range of national objectives. US agencies and departments typically have singular missions, such as defense, energy, transportation, commerce, and labor. Even if each agency or department perfectly fulfills its distinct mission, the country could still fail to fulfill its multi-objective role.
The US needs a National Technology Strategy Agency to help create initiatives that will improve the innovation ecosystem. This new agency will need to be able to build the intellectual foundations, data, and analytic capabilities to make sure that these new initiatives are successful.
Why America Needs National Conservatism
Widespread poverty and unemployment. The steady destruction of a middle class. All of this and more can be seen in just a few years’ work by today’s progressives in America. Proponents of communism say that it has never really been tried. However, progressivism has been tried and its doctrines are being widely implemented by earnest practitioners with wide establishment support. The results have come in with astonishing speed, including mayhem and misery at an open national border, riot and murder in lawless city neighborhoods, political indoctrination of schoolchildren, government by executive ukase, shortages throughout the world’s richest economy, suppression of religion and private association, regulation of everyday language, widespread poverty and unemployment, and the destruction of a middle class. All of this can be seen in just a few years’ work by today’s progressives in America.
This makes a national conservatism an easy sell. A national conservative is someone who has been confronted by the harsh realities and has learned from them. We have a plan to fix the problems that America is facing.
When the American left leaned more towards liberalism and reform, conservatives played their usual role as those who moderate change. Just as liberals did, conservatives breathed in the air of liberalism– admitting that there are always things that could be improved. We could take on the beliefs of Burke– an English political philosopher who favored slow, incremental improvement, staying connected to the past, avoiding any negative consequences that might come from change, and working within the limits of what was affordable. In the 1970s, I partnered with liberals to work on reforming regulations– making improvements to environmental policies and reigning in capitalism that was unfair to people. This type of pragmatic bipartisanship resulted in many improvements.
But the progressivism of today is not interested in reform, it seeks to promote instability and turn the world upside down. In 1968, mayors who were Democrats sided with police and prosecutors against rioters and lawbreakers. In 2020, they took the side of lawbreakers. Last year, congressional progressives not only rejected Sen. Tim Scott’s police reforms but vilified and degraded him. This year they vilify any Democrat whose spending plan is less than revolutionary. Compromise is the opposite of what they want to achieve.
WHAT NATIONAL TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY IS NOT
We should not change the structure of the departments and agencies we already have nor should we impose top-down coordination when building a US national technology strategy. Calls for national technology strategy that involve top-down coordination, efforts to reduce “redundancy” across agencies, or attempts to “reduce inefficiencies” are misguided and could actually dampen innovation.
While some may see the United States’ innovation system as having various disadvantages, others see the diversity as a strength. Emphasizing the importance of the diversity of the U.S. innovation ecosystem, long-term scientific and technical progress is seen as a nonlinear process that could be slowed andfragmented by a focus on efficiency.
If a national technology strategy focuses on only one goal, it may miss out on other opportunities. For example, semiconductors are important for security, trade, and jobs. Focusing on only one goal could mean missing out on other benefits.A policy that provides equal weight to national security and labor might encourage foreign and domestic firms to invest in fabrication facilities within the United States.
In order to improve the current situation, the United States needs an institution that is able to adapt quickly and identify opportunities for investments that would be beneficial for all parties involved. However, at present, the government does not have the necessary data or analytical skills to determine the impact that a particular technology would have on different national objectives, or to compare the different trade-offs between different technology solutions. Furthermore, they are not able to see the potential benefits that could be gained from making certain choices in the future.
TOWARD A NATIONAL TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY GREATER THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
A national technology strategy that incentivizes innovation offers returns without undermining existing strengths.
The text is suggesting that the United States should create a new agency, the National Technology Strategy Agency, which would be responsible for researching and funding technology initiatives, as well as coordinating with existing agencies. This agency would have two main components: an analytic arm and an executive arm.
An agency that wants to be influential and fund platforms of technology will need a robust budget, but it shouldn’t be so large that it’s forced to rely on other agencies to have a bigger impact. Based on what’s been learned from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), an annual budget of $3 billion for external seed funding, plus an operating budget of $500 million to employ 100 program managers and 100 analysts with an appropriate support staff and facilities is recommended. This would give the agency a budget and program manager staff on par with DARPA (which has a $3.5 billion budget today) and an analytic team slightly smaller than what OTA had at its closing in 1995.
The full-time staff should use the academic insights to improve government functions.
Funding academic research not only brings in stars to address the nation’s challenges, but also creates incentives for researchers in academia to work on real-world technology policy problems, which require integrating technical and social science expertise.
The agency should have an external expert advisory board with leaders from different areas to ensure excellence and relevancy. This was a lesson learned from DARPA’s Information Science and Technology Study Group. Additionally, there should be small, rotating, problem-specific expert advisory boards that include people from different industries and backgrounds. This will help keep the agency grounded in reality and ensure that suggestions from studies are acted upon.
LESSONS FROM OUR NATIONAL INNOVATION SYSTEM
A National Technology Strategy Agency should focus on creating conditions that allow for bottom-up coordination between multiple entities in order to catalyze technical initiatives, based on lessons learned from previous successful models. Top-down coordination efforts can fail to take into account the complexities of the national innovation system, and how bottom-up coordination already takes place within that system. The semiconductor industry provides examples of bottom-up coordination at different stages of scientific and technology development through organizations such as SEMATECH, SRC, and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).
SEMATECH is a public-private partnership between the government and industry that was originally created to promote equipment upgrades in order to increase competitiveness with Japan. SRC is an industry-led public-private partnership that funds academic research three to seven years out in order to ensure that research advances meet industry needs. NNI works to support and set priorities for more fundamental long-term research in nanoscale science and technology.
Industry leaders at SRC regularly meet with program managers from various national agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Science Foundation (NSF), DARPA, and DOE, as well as with state leaders, to decide on funding directions and co-fund complementary agendas under a single SRC program umbrella. Likewise, NNI has facilitated working groups, an infrastructure network involving an integrated partnership of user facilities at 13 campuses across the United States, and centers to support the development of tools for fabrication and analysis at the nanoscale. NNI has also created consultative boards to facilitate networking among industry, government, and academic researchers, analyze policy impacts at the state level, and support programmatic and budget redirection within agencies.
The only way to manage this process is with an agency separate from, but in consultation with, existing agencies that are responsible for the relevant industries or for promoting broader national objectives. It is important to fund solutions rather than industries in order to achieve important national objectives. For example, if Moore’s Law ends, there will be a need for a lot of funding to address the issue. Without a separate agency to manage this process, it would be easy to make mistakes in how the funding is allocated.
Do not only focus on moonshots. A National Technology Strategy Agency should not be seduced by the idea that “moonshots” can be a cure-all. Although they are more and more trendy, moonshots, competitions, or contests are not an appropriate solution in all cases, especially when coordinating a large platform is necessary. For example, if we want to invent the next generation of transistors, this is an extremely difficult problem that would require progress in the underlying physics, with consequences for security, welfare, and society.
An organization like the National Technology Strategy Agency should take lessons from the DARPA on how to successfully orchestrate technology revolutions. My research on DARPA demonstrates that, rather than forcing policymakers to choose between the extremes of free markets or the heavy hand of government to select successful technologies, DARPA offers a third alternative: embedded network governance.
A National Technology Strategy Agency needs to take advantage of the entire innovation ecosystem, understanding the variety of models within it and the role each plays in advancing science and technology. While DARPA may play an important role, it plays only one role in this complex system.
It is important to invest in capabilities that will allow you to be successful in multiple areas. My research with my colleagues on responses to COVID-19 at the national and firm levels has shown how important it is to have national competencies in technology and production, and how science and technology capabilities can reinforce each other across sectors.
TOWARD A NATIONAL TECHNOLOGY STRATEGY
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that different parts of the world are interconnected in terms of health and manufacturing. It has also revealed national challenges in terms of racial and income inequality, and job safety. As the United States attempted to respond to the pandemic, it became clear that we had underestimated the importance of social welfare, including health and equity. We had also underestimated resilience and domestic manufacturing. We did not have enough data to know who our manufacturers were and which of them could help us respond to the pandemic. If our institutions continue to focus on only one thing, such as national security without considering health and equity, we will have the same problems again in the future.