Biden team needs some quick wins on tech policy
The incoming administration faces acute challenges on day one: fierce societal fissures and rampant radicalization, a pandemic that will continue to rage for weeks if not months, the fallout of a massive cyberattack on numerous government agencies and corporate networks, and a flagging economy. These problems are only the most immediate ones. At the same time, President Biden must lay the groundwork needed to ensure competitiveness in a long-term, all-encompassing geostrategic contest with China. Technology — an enabler of economic, military, and political power — is at the core of this competition.
For much of its history, America’s strength has been anchored in its scientific and technological prowess. Since World War II in particular, the United States has pioneered the technologies that drive the global economy: semiconductors, GPS, and the internet just to name a few. These groundbreaking technologies are rooted in investments made by the federal government decades ago. The world’s most iconic companies — Amazon, Apple, Google, Tesla — would be impossible without those earlier public investments.
U.S. technological leadership is more important than ever, but America’s position is at risk. Other countries are narrowing the gap in R&D spending, and education shortfalls and immigration restrictions are constricting America’s talent pipeline. A course correction is urgently needed. The Biden administration must craft an overarching framework for technology policy — a national technology strategy grounded in investments in education, infrastructure, and innovation to promote American competitiveness; proactive and comprehensive measures to protect U.S. technological advantages; and partnering with like-minded countries to push back against rising techno-authoritarianism.
The U.S. government must mobilize to harness its science and technology base — the people, resources, and infrastructure needed to research and innovate — to compete against a rising China. The window for President Biden and his team to act will not be open long — some quick wins are needed to build and sustain momentum for this complex and strategic effort.
Here are three initiatives that would help set the administration on course for long-term success.
First, organize the executive branch to craft and execute a national technology strategy. Without the proper bureaucratic backing, the more ambitious parts of a comprehensive tech policy agenda will be dead on arrival. The appointment of a senior director for technology and national security on the National Security Council staff is a superb start. Further actions should include bolstering the authority of the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (such as for tech regulation) and creating a State Department office to initiate and manage bilateral and multilateral technology alliances with like-minded partners.
Second, advance digital equity. Maximizing U.S. innovative capacity and competitiveness means ensuring that all Americans have equal access to technologies and the opportunities they offer. This means a commitment to education, workplace diversity, bridging digital divides, and addressing automated discrimination. Priority actions should include addressing bias in everyday functions such as facial recognition, hiring decisions, and loan approvals — and investing in infrastructure to bring broadband to underserved areas.
Finally, the administration should tackle unwanted tech transfer. Technology theft is massively detrimental to the U.S. economy, costing hundreds of billions of dollars each year. Mitigating those costs appeals to lawmakers across the political spectrum. Biden’s team can work to counter tech transfer by providing cyberdefense support to small businesses, empowering consular officials to act on risk indicators for espionage to screen out high-risk individuals, and creating forums for increased collaboration between academic leaders and counterintelligence experts.
There is bipartisan consensus that the United States is engaged in a long-term strategic competition with China. A growing number of lawmakers understand that the technology realm may prove most consequential in shaping the outcome of this contest. Sustained technological leadership by the United States is essential to continued economic competitiveness, maintaining military strength, and protecting liberal democratic values. Quick and decisive action by the Biden team on key tech matters will set the stage and burgeon support for a much-needed course correction — the crafting of a true national strategy for technology.
Martijn Rasser is a Senior Fellow with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Megan Lamberth is a Research Associate for the CNAS Technology and National Security Program.