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Can Joe Biden Deliver a Sci-Tech Renaissance?

Net neutrality, the Iran nuclear deal, and a government-wide climate focus are all on the agenda

5 min read
Image of President Joe Biden sitting at the oval office desk.
Photo: Doug Mills/Getty Images

For good or ill, the Trump administration's U.S. technology policy—and President Barack Obama's tech policy before that—often set global priorities. The new administration will surely be no different. With the still young Biden administration, and its young-at-heart chief executive, some quandaries lie coiled within puzzles, others represent wholly unprecedented challenges. Climate, economic, pandemic, technology, and military policy: All priorities must somehow be balanced within and against one another. Below is only a small sample of the many spinning plates the new administration must keep magically suspended in air at once—somehow holding its many political factions and economic priorities in line, without shattering all the dishware in the process.

National Security

In the realm of national security, the Biden administration has made quick work of reversing the course of the previous administration, in particular on arms control and the NATO alliance. As one of his first actions out of the gate, President Joe Biden extended the New START Treaty with Russia in early February, holding both countries to verifiable limits in the numbers of strategic nuclear forces for the next five years. During the same month, the administration offered to resume nuclear talks with Iran, hoping to rescue the 2015 deal limiting Iran's nuclear enrichment activities, which was abandoned by Trump. In an attempt to restore strained relationships with European allies, Biden spoke virtually to the Munich Security Conference, emphasizing the commitment of the United States to NATO's Article V. In addition, he has signaled important conceptual shifts in national security policy through his decision to include the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy as a nonstatutory member of the National Security Council. In his first presidential directive on national security, Biden designated the pandemic response as a top priority, broadening national security to include global health security. This comports with the administration's decision to merge previously distinct categories of foreign and domestic policy under the umbrella of national security. Future priorities of the Biden administration will include rebooting the arms control agenda by addressing more weapons types and bringing new countries into the fold as well as scaling back nuclear modernization plans. —Natasha Bajema

Climate and Science Policy

In 2021, the U.S. government will prioritize man-made climate change more than any presidential administration has ever done. “When I think of climate change...I think of jobs," President Biden said just a week after his inauguration. He made that statement at a signing ceremony for an executive order that, among other goals, sought to bolster renewable energy industries with federal purchase priorities for U.S.-made electric vehicles, sustainable technologies, and smart-grid efforts. (The administration is also accelerating existing projects—witness its 8 March environmental approval of the offshore Vineyard Wind farm, moving toward its goal of a zero-carbon electricity grid by 2035.) Biden's 27 January order also established the Office of Domestic Climate Policy and the National Climate Task Force, which will coordinate climate-mitigation efforts across 21 federal agencies and departments. Then on 10 March, in response to the same order, the Pentagon announced the formation of the Department of Defense Climate Working Group—committed, it said, to incorporating “climate risk" into all its plans and to use the power of its enormous purse to “deploying new energy solutions" across its many missions and installations around the globe. All these agencies and groups, in turn, join John Kerry, special presidential envoy on climate change, in an administration directing its climate focus both internationally and domestically. Biden also established with the 27 January order an international Leaders' Climate Summit for 22 April (Earth Day)—as it happens, eight days shy of his hundredth day in office. Just the day before his above-quoted statement, Biden had picked Harvard and MIT geneticist Eric Lander (lead author of the first paper announcing the mapped human genome) to be his chief scientific adviser—a position the president elevated to a cabinet-level post. “Science and truth" are what candidate Biden had promised he'd lead with, and this step alone marks a substantial departure from his predecessor. Noteworthy on the present list is the absence of any climate-oriented legislation. Working within or around a Senate filibuster remains a substantial legislative obstacle. So, as his climate-oriented executive actions face inevitable litigation, the new president will no doubt be revisiting the actions of his earliest days in office for many more months to come. —Mark Anderson

Semiconductor Manufacturing

One of the few issues that enjoy bipartisan agreement in these partisan times is that the United States needs more domestic, cutting-edge microelectronics manufacturing. With powerful support from both parties, provisions authorizing incentives for that were included in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021, which

became law in the weeks before Biden took office. The law does not, however, provide the money to achieve its goals. That will take a separate appropriations bill that the new Congress and Biden will have to contend with. The Semiconductor Industry Association, which represents most of the industry in the United States is keeping the pressure up, and there is still broad support in Congress, according to Russell T. Harrison, director of government relations at IEEE-USA. “The fight is now in the appropriations process," he says. “And we're in good shape to win that one." There are some hints that the Biden administration is on board. On 24 February, Biden issued an executive order requiring 100-day strategic reviews of the supply chains of semiconductors and advanced packaging, pharmaceutical ingredients, large-capacity batteries, and critical minerals. Other sectors, such as the defense industry and information technology will get full-year reviews. The difference is telling, says Harrison. “You can't do a proper 100-day review of anything on this list. That says the Biden administration already knows what it wants to do," he says. —Samuel K. Moore

Telecoms & Internet

Biden has an earlier-than-expected opportunity to seat a Democratic majority on the five-person commission leading the Federal Communications Commission, after Ajit Pai

stepped down on 20 January. Pai's move allowed Biden to name current commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel as acting chair and to eventually nominate a third Democratic commissioner for Pai's now-empty seat. (By law, no more than three commissioners at a time can be from the same party.) Biden's FCC will likely pursue universal broadband, an issue on which he campaigned. That includes expanding rural infrastructure, something that already started with the FCC's 2019 Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, which granted US $20 billion to fuel build-out. It also includes closing the “homework gap," which Rosenworcel has argued for in the past. In other words, it ensures that every student has Internet access for schoolwork. The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated this gap in stark relief. Expect a revitalization of the net neutrality debate as well. Under Obama, the FCC moved Internet service providers (ISPs) into the Telecommunications Act of 1996's Title II services. Among other things, the move required that providers not discriminate data in their networks on the basis of where it originated. But then Trump's FCC to reclassify ISPs as Title I services, thereby removing those same restrictions. Rosenworcel voted for the Title II shift, and against the reversion to Title I. If she is confirmed as the actual FCC chair, it's very probable that net neutrality will become a hot topic again. —Michael Koziol

COVID-19

Joe Biden worked to set expectations before he set foot in the White House. In a December speech describing his

plan to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, he stated bluntly: “We did not get in this mess quickly, we're not going to get out of it quickly, it's going to take some time." But he pledged to “change the course of the disease and change life in America for the better" within his first 100 days in office. His three-part plan included a face-mask mandate that would apply to federal buildings and interstate travel, the distribution of 100 million vaccine doses (at the time, enough to fully vaccinate 50 million Americans), and a push to safely reopen schools. He has made good on the first two promises. On his first day in office, he signed executive orders that put those mask mandates in place. As of early March, the federal government has already distributed more than 130 million doses (though only about 75 percent of those had been administered). To make progress on his third goal, a federal pharmacy program is prioritizing teachers for vaccines, and Biden has called on states to likewise prioritize school staff. More direct help for schools was included in the $1.9 trillion stimulus package that Congress passed in March. Internationally, the big news is Biden's commitment to COVAX, an effort to distribute vaccines to low- and middle-income countries. In February, Biden pledged an initial $2 billion, with another $2 billion to come. As dangerous new variants can emerge in unvaccinated populations, such international efforts benefit American voters—whether or not they realize it. —Eliza Strickland

The Conversation (0)
This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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