The Audacity Of Technology

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PHOTO: Jay L. Clendenin/Aurora Photos

Barack Obama believes in the power of technology. The cellphone-toting, BlackBerry-packing next president of the United States ran a brilliant Web 2.0 campaign, demonstrating how everything from social networking to GPS could be deployed to organize and mobilize volunteers and voters alike. He’s not a technologist, but he has surrounded himself with tech-savvy strategists.

Obama clearly understood that technology could help him get where he wanted to be. Do he and his advisors have a plan for using it to get the United States where it needs to go? He’s certainly saying all the right things. His Web site, BarackObama.com, makes the case for a formidable list of technology to-dos that includes:

making broadband access available to all;

overhauling the national electricity grid and other critical infrastructure;

increasing funding for clean energy resources, such as biofuels and low-­carbon coal technology;

improving technology education and literacy; and

building a bigger workforce of homegrown scientists and engineers and creating jobs for them.

There are two things Obama should do right now to signal his seriousness about science and technology. First, he should appoint his science advisor before his inauguration, to show he believes that the science advisor’s job is as important as other senior-level positions. You’ll recall that the current administration’s science advisor, physicist John Marburger, wasn’t appointed until near the end of President George W. Bush’s first year in office, after decisions about divisive issues like stem cell research had already been made. Marburger also lost the title ”Assistant to the President,” which his predecessors had held. And while he’s at it, Obama should fill the new cabinet-level position he’s been talking about, that of chief technology officer, again to demonstrate serious intent.

Second, he should work with the U.S. Congress to get the America COMPETES Act (ACA) of 2007 fully funded, ideally in the first quarter of 2009. ACA is supposed to improve U.S. competitiveness and innovation by substantially increasing the amount of federal money spent on supporting national science agencies and institutes, R&D, science, technology, engineering, and math education, and an adjunct teachers corps. The bill also aims to reform the immigration system so that technologists from around the world can work in the United States with fewer restrictions.

This law was fast-tracked by Congress but fell victim to budgetary infighting. In 2005, Senators Lamar Alexander and Jeff Bingaman asked the U.S. National Academies to study the state of U.S. competitiveness in science and technology. The result was a report called Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future, which painted a grim picture of the United States’ eroding technological advantage but also offered a number of concrete proposals for turning the situation around. The report, by an elite committee of scientists and technologists led by former Lockheed Martin chairman and CEO Norman Augustine, created such a stir that a bipartisan congressional committee, which included Senator Obama, got the ACA into legislation in early 2007. By August, President Bush had signed it into law.

But then Congress and the president got deadlocked over the domestic spending budget—US $21 billion kept them apart—and the bill was never funded. Russell Lefevre, president of IEEE-USA—both Lefevre and IEEEâ''USA are longtime proponents of ACA—calls it ”the train wreck of December ’07.” The hopes of the Gathering Storm report’s authors were dashed. Some federal science agencies, like the U.S. National Science Foundation, were left with budget increases that were less than the rate of inflation.

An authorization bill without appropriations and $3 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks, as Lefevre says. But the 2009 budget is not yet finalized—Congress is waiting for the new administration to arrive—and so there is an opportunity for Obama and the new Congress to fully fund ACA early next year.

With so many other problems to deal with, things like rebuilding the American economy, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, fixing the health-care system, and restoring diplomatic relations with the rest of the world, why take this on?

Because if the president-elect really believes that technology can help realize our hopes and dreams, that technology drives social change and economic growth and stability, that technology is vital to health-care reform and the key to a transparent and engaged democracy, he, working together with the new Congress, should actively support science and technology development, starting now. Doing so will help seed solutions to some of the gravest problems facing all of us today.

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