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.

Navy Torpedoes Scientific Advisory Group

This week the U.S. Navy abruptly terminated its own scientific advisory group, depriving the service of a source of internal critique and evaluation.

The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) was established by legislation in 1946 and provided science and technology advice to the Navy for the past 73 years. Now it’s gone.

The decision to disestablish the Committee was announced in a March 29 Federal Register notice, which did not provide any justification for eliminating it. Phone and email messages to the office of the Secretary of the Navy seeking more information were not returned.

“I think it’s a shortsighted move,” said one Navy official, who was not part of the decisionmaking process.

This official said that the Committee had been made vulnerable by an earlier effort to reduce the number of Navy advisory committees. Instead of remaining an independent entity, the NRAC was redesignated as a sub-committee of the Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel, which provides policy advice to the Secretary. It was a poor fit for the NRAC technologists, the official said, since they don’t do policy and were thus “misaligned.” When the Secretary decided to eliminate the Panel, the NRAC was swept away with it.

Did the NRAC do or say something in particular to trigger the Navy’s wrath? If so, it’s unclear what that might have been. “This is the most highly professional crew I’ve seen,” the Navy official said. “They stay between the lines.”

The NRAC was the Navy counterpart to the Army Science Board and the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. It has no obvious replacement.

“This will leave the Navy without an independent and objective technical advisory body, which is not in the best interests of the Navy or the nation,” said a Navy scientist.

According to the NRAC website (which is still online for now), “The Naval Research Advisory Committee (NRAC) is an independent civilian scientific advisory group dedicated to providing objective analyses in the areas of science, research and development. By its recommendations, the NRAC calls attention to important issues and presents Navy management with alternative courses of action.”

Its mission was “To know the problems of the Navy and Marine Corps, keep abreast of the current research and development programs, and provide an independent, objective assessment capability through investigative studies.”

A 2017 report on Autonomous and Unmanned Systems in the Department of the Navy appears to be the NRAC’s most recent unclassified published report.

Under Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly ordered disestablishment of the NRAC in a 21 February 2019 memo.

“This was a sudden and unexpected move according to people I know,” said the Navy scientist.  “I have not yet seen an explanation for its termination.”

A Profile of Defense Science & Tech Spending

Annual spending on defense science and technology has “grown substantially” over the past four decades from $2.3 billion in FY1978 to $13.4 billion in FY2018 or by nearly 90% in constant dollars, according to a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Defense science and technology refers to the early stages of military research and development, including basic research (known by its budget code 6.1), applied research (6.2) and advanced technology development (6.3).

“While there is little direct opposition to Defense S&T spending in its own right,” the CRS report says, “there is intense competition for available dollars in the appropriations process,” such that sustained R&D spending is never guaranteed.

Still, “some have questioned the effectiveness of defense investments in R&D.”

CRS takes note of a 2012 article published by the Center for American Progress which argued that military spending was an inefficient way to spur innovation and that the growing sophistication of military technology was poorly suited to meet some low-tech threats such as improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan (as discussed in an earlier article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists).

The new CRS report presents an overview of the defense science and tech budget, its role in national defense, and questions about its proper size and proportion. See Defense Science and Technology Funding, February 21, 2018,

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

Armed Conflict in Syria: Overview and U.S. Response, updated February 16, 2018

Jordan: Background and U.S. Relations, updated February 16, 2018

Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated February 15, 2018

Potential Options for Electric Power Resiliency in the U.S. Virgin Islands, February 14, 2018

U.S. Manufacturing in International Perspective, updated February 21, 2018

Methane and Other Air Pollution Issues in Natural Gas Systems, updated February 15, 2018

Where Can Corporations Be Sued for Patent Infringement? Part ICRS Legal Sidebar, February 20, 2018

How Broad A Shield? A Brief Overview of Section 230 of the Communications Decency ActCRS Legal Sidebar, February 21, 2018

Russians Indicted for Online Election TrollingCRS Legal Sidebar, February 21, 2018

Hunting and Fishing on Federal Lands and Waters: Overview and Issues for Congress, February 14, 2018

US-China Scientific Cooperation “Mutually Beneficial”

The US and China have successfully carried out a wide range of cooperative science and technology projects in recent years, the State Department told Congress last year in a newly released report.

Joint programs between government agencies on topics ranging from pest control to elephant conservation to clean energy evidently worked to the benefit of both countries.

“Science and technology engagement with the United States continues to be highly valued by the Chinese government,” the report said.

At the same time, “Cooperative activities also accelerated scientific progress in the United States and provided significant direct benefit to a range of U.S. technical agencies.”

The 2016 biennial report to Congress, released last week under the Freedom of Information Act, describes programs that were ongoing in 2014-2015.

See Implementation of Agreement between the United States and China on Science and Technology, report to Congress, US Department of State, April 2016.

Science & Technology Issues Facing Congress, & More from CRS

Science and technology policy issues that may soon come before Congress were surveyed in a new report from the Congressional Research Service.

Overarching issues include the impact of recent reductions in federal spending for research and development.

“Concerns about reductions in federal R&D funding have been exacerbated by increases in the R&D investments of other nations (China, in particular); globalization of R&D and manufacturing activities; and trade deficits in advanced technology products, an area in which the United States previously ran trade surpluses. At the same time, some Members of Congress have expressed concerns about the level of federal funding in light of the current federal fiscal condition. In addition, R&D funding decisions may be affected by differing perspectives on the appropriate role of the federal government in advancing science and technology.”

See Science and Technology Issues in the 115th Congress, March 14, 2017.

Other new and updated reports from the Congressional Research Service include the following.

The American Health Care Act, March 14, 2017

Previewing a 2018 Farm Bill, March 15, 2017

EPA Policies Concerning Integrated Planning and Affordability of Water Infrastructure, updated March 14, 2017

National Park Service: FY2017 Appropriations and Ten-Year Trends, updated March 14, 2017

Qatar: Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy, updated March 15, 2017

Northern Ireland: Current Issues and Ongoing Challenges in the Peace Process, updated March 14, 2017

Navy LX(R) Amphibious Ship Program: Background and Issues for Congress, updated March 14, 2017

Under Pressure: Long Duration Undersea Research

“The Office of Naval Research is conducting groundbreaking research into the dangers of working for prolonged periods of time in extreme high and low pressure environments.”

Why? In part, it reflects “the increased operational focus being placed on undersea clandestine operations,” said Rear Adm. Mathias W. Winter in newly published answers to questions for the record from a February 2016 hearing.

“The missions include deep dives to work on the ocean floor, clandestine transits in cold, dark waters, and long durations in the confines of the submarine. The Undersea Medicine Program comprises the science and technology efforts to overcome human shortfalls in operating in this extreme environment,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

See DoD FY2017 Science and Technology Programs: Defense Innovation to Create the Future Military Force, House Armed Services Committee hearing, February 24, 2016.

Patents Granted to Two Formerly Secret Inventions

Two patent applications that had been subject to “secrecy orders” under the Invention Secrecy Act for years or decades were finally granted patents and publicly disclosed in 2016.

“Only two patents have been granted so far on cases in which the secrecy order was rescinded in FY16,” the US Patent and Trademark Office said this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.  They were among the 20 inventions whose secrecy orders were rescinded over the past year.

One of the patents concerns “a controllable barrier layer against electromagnetic radiation, to be used, inter alia, as a radome for a radar antenna for instance.” The inventor, Anders Grop of Sweden, filed the patent application in 2007 and it was granted on April 5, 2016 (patent number 9,306,290).

The other formerly secret invention that finally received a patent this year described “multi-charge munitions, incorporating hole-boring charge assemblies.” Detonation of the munitions is “suitable for defeating a concrete target.” That invention was originally filed in 1990 by Kevin Mark Powell and Edward Evans of the United Kingdom and was granted on October 25, 2016 (patent number 9,476,682).

The inventors could not immediately be contacted for comment. But judging from appearances, the decision to control the disclosure of these two inventions for a period of time and then to grant them a patent was consistent with the terms of the Invention Secrecy Act, and it had no obvious adverse impacts.

Invention Secrecy Increased in 2016

There were 5,680 invention secrecy orders in effect at the end of Fiscal Year 2016. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reported that 121 new secrecy orders were issued in 2016, but also that 20 existing orders were rescinded, for a net increase of 101 over the year before. The latest figures were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

The government may impose a “secrecy order” on a patent application under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 if it believes that disclosure of the underlying invention would be “detrimental to national security.” Under those circumstances, a patent is withheld and the inventor is prohibited from revealing the invention unless and until the secrecy order is withdrawn.

The majority of secrecy orders apply to inventions that were developed with government sponsorship, in national or military laboratories or by government-funded contractors. So the ensuing secrecy amounts to the government silencing itself.

In a subset of cases, however, secrecy orders are imposed on private inventors who developed their idea without government support. There were 49 such orders in FY 2016. These orders, known as “John Doe” secrecy orders, seem like a form of prior restraint on individual speech that would be arguably inconsistent with the First Amendment.

But there have been few constitutional challenges to the Invention Secrecy Act to date, and none that has dislodged or modified the Act.

In 2014, inventors Budimir Damnjanovic and Desanka Damnjanovic filed a lawsuit seeking compensation for a secrecy order that the U.S. Air Force imposed on them. They also argued that the Invention Secrecy Act itself was unconstitutional.

“Because the Patent Secrecy Act prohibits Plaintiffs from speaking of their Invention to third parties, including potential customers, it violates the First Amendment of the Constitution,” their May 14, 2014 complaint stated.

Moreover, “the Patent Secrecy Act has resulted in Plaintiffs being deprived of property without due process and just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”

The court dismissed the constitutional claim because by that time the secrecy orders had been lifted and therefore, the court determined, the inventors did not have standing to make their constitutional case.

“Plaintiffs’ First Amendment argument fails because the harms they claim they suffered are past injuries. Further, the purported prohibition on speech Plaintiffs allegedly endured is not an ongoing issue, given that the secrecy orders have been lifted,” according to a September 22, 2015 court order. (Damnjanovic v. US Air Force, E.D. of Michigan, S. Div., 14-11920).

Ultimately, however, the parties reached a settlement regarding the compensation issues, and in December 2015 the government agreed to pay the inventors a lump sum of $63,000 to dismiss the case.

For related background, see “Congratulations, Your Genius Patent is Now a Military Secret” by Joshua Brustein, Bloomberg, June 8, 2016.

The Department of Defense published a proposed rule in the Federal Register today on “Withholding of Unclassified Technical Data and Technology From Public Disclosure.”

The rule “is meant to control the transfer of technical data and technology contributing to the military potential of any country or countries, groups, or individuals that could prove detrimental to U.S, national security or critical interests.”

“For the purposes of this regulation, public disclosure of technical data and technology is the same as providing uncontrolled foreign access. This rule instructs DoD employees, contractors, and grantees to ensure unclassified technical data and technology that discloses technology or information with a military or space application may not be exported without authorization and should be controlled and disseminated consistent with U.S. export control laws and regulations.”

Autonomous Military Technology at a “Tipping Point”

Autonomous military technologies that are capable of independently selecting a course of action to achieve a goal are maturing rapidly, the Defense Science Board said in a newly published study.

“Autonomy, fueled by advances in artificial intelligence, has attained a ‘tipping point’ in value,” the DSB study said.

“Autonomy will deliver substantial operational value–in multiple dimensions–across an increasingly broad spectrum of DoD missions, but the DoD must move more rapidly to realize this value. Allies and adversaries alike also have access to increasingly rapid technological advances occurring globally,” the study said.

The Board recommended that the Department of Defense undertake a series of pilot projects “intended to demonstrate the range of benefits of autonomy for the warfighter.”

The Board did not consider catastrophic failures modes associated with autonomous technologies in any depth.

But the study did say that “an autonomous system must be designed so that humans (and/or machines) can straightforwardly determine whether, once it has been deployed, it is operating reliably and within its envelope of competence — and, if not, that appropriate action can be taken.”

See Summer Study on Autonomy, Defense Science Board, June 2016.

Patents Awarded to Formerly Secret Inventions

Last year, 95 secrecy orders barring disclosure of inventions under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951 were imposed on new patent applications while 36 prior secrecy orders were rescinded. Three of the newly releasable inventions have recently received patents, decades after the inventors filed their applications.

The three new patents were identified by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The formerly secret inventions that received patents this year are:

Patent Number 9057604: Point-ahead laser pointer-tracker systems with wavefront correction in both transmit and receive directions. Filed in April 1989, the patent application was finally granted in June 2015.

Patent Number 9115993: Fused PM fiber single-polarization resonator. It was filed in August 1990 and granted in August 2015.

Patent Number 9181140: Solid propellant bonding agents and methods for their use. It was filed in December 1993 and granted in November 2015.

The factors that led the U.S. government to impose secrecy orders on these particular inventions more than two decades ago (and to release them this year) are not self-evident. But neither do they seem to indicate an obvious abuse of authority.

There were a total of 5,579 invention secrecy orders in effect at the end of fiscal year 2015, the highest number of such secrecy orders since FY 1993.