Secrecy News

White House Issues a “National” Science & Tech Agenda

A new White House budget memo presents science and technology as a distinctly American-led enterprise in which U.S. dominance is to be maintained and reinforced. The document is silent on the possibility or the necessity of international scientific cooperation.

“The five R&D budgetary priorities in this memorandum ensure that America remains at the forefront of scientific progress, national and economic security, and personal wellbeing, while continuing to serve as the standard-bearer for today’s emerging technologies and Industries of the Future,” wrote Acting OMB Director Russell T. Vought and White House science advisor Dr. Kelvin K. Droegemeier in the August 30 memo.

The document, which is intended to inform executive branch budget planning for fiscal year 2021, contains no acknowledgment that many scientific challenges are global in scope, that foreign countries lead the U.S. in some areas of science and technology, or that the U.S. could actually benefit from international collaboration.

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The White House memo begins by designating the entire post-World War II period until now as America’s “First Bold Era in S&T [Science & Technology].” It goes on to proclaim that the “Second Bold Era in S&T” has now begun under President Trump.

“The Trump Administration continues to prioritize the technologies that power Industries of the Future (IotF),” the memo declares.

Many of the proposed technology priorities are already in progress — including artificial intelligence, robotics, and gene therapy. Some are controversial or disputed — such as the purported need to invest in protection against electromagnetic pulse attacks.

Meanwhile, the memo takes pains to avoid even mentioning the term “climate change,” which is disfavored by this White House. Instead, it speaks of “Earth system predictability” and “knowing the extent to which components of the Earth system are practically predictable.”

Today’s Second Bold Era is “characterized by unprecedented knowledge, access to data and computing resources, ubiquitous and instant communication,” and so on. “Unfortunately, this Second Bold Era also features new and extraordinary threats which must be confronted thoughtfully and effectively.”

The White House guidance suggests vaguely that the Second Bold Era could require a recalibration of secrecy policy in science and technology. “[Success] will depend upon striking a balance between the openness of our research ecosystem and the protection of our ideas and research outcomes.”

This may or may not augur a change in the longstanding policy of openness in basic research that was formally adopted in President Reagan’s 1985 National Security Decision Directive 189. That directive stated that “It is the policy of this Administration that, to the maximum extent possible, the products of fundamental research remain unrestricted.”

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The context for the concern about protecting U.S. ideas and research outcomes is an assessment that U.S. intellectual property is being aggressively targeted and illicitly acquired by China, among other countries.

“China has expansive efforts in place to acquire U.S. technology to include sensitive trade secrets and proprietary information,” according to a 2018 report from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center. “Chinese companies and individuals often acquire U.S. technology for commercial and scientific purposes.”

Perceived Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property is one of the factors that led to imposition of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports. See U.S.-China Relations, Congressional Research Service, August 29, 2019.

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At an August 30 briefing on artificial intelligence in the Department of Defense, Air Force Lt. General Jack Shanahan discussed the need to protect military data in the context of AI.

But unlike the new White House memo, Gen. Shanahan recognized the need for international cooperation even (or especially) in national security matters:

“We’re very interested in actively engaging a number of international partners,” he said, “because if you envision a future of which the United States is employing A.I. in its military capabilities and other nations are not, what does that future look like? Does the commander trust one and not the other?”

By analogy, however, the same need for international collaboration arises in many other areas of science and technology which cannot be effectively addressed solely on a national basis, from mitigating climate change to combating disease. In such cases, everyone needs to be “at the forefront” together.

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One way to bolster U.S. scientific and intellectual leadership that the White House memo does not contemplate is to encourage foreign students at American universities to remain in this country. Too often, they are discouraged from doing so, wrote Columbia University Lee C. Bollinger in the Washington Post.

“Many of these international scholars, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, would, if permitted, prefer to remain in the United States and work for U.S.-based companies after graduation, where they could also contribute to the United States’ economic growth and prosperity. But under the present rules, when their academic studies are completed, we make it difficult for them to stay. They return to their countries with the extraordinary knowledge they acquired here, which can inform future commercial strategies deployed against U.S. competitors,” Bollinger wrote on August 30.

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As for the Trump Administration’s pending FY2020 budget request for research and development, it does not convey much in the way of boldness (or Boldness).

“Under the President’s FY2020 budget request, most federal agencies would see their R&D funding decline. The primary exception is the Department of Defense,” according to the Congressional Research Service.

“The President’s FY2020 budget request would reduce funding for basic research by $1.5 billion (4.0%), applied research by $4.3 billion (10.5%), and facilities and equipment by $0.5 billion (12.8%), while increasing funding for development by $4.5 billion (8.3%).” See Federal Research and Development (R&D) Funding: FY2020, updated August 13, 2019.