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Keeping Our Edge: Overview of the Innovation and National Security Task Force Report

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The United States has led the world in innovation, but China is closing the gap. A CFR Task Force says that the United States needs an ambitious plan of public and private investment in science and technology to keep its edge.

September 18, 2019

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

This post is an overview of the CFR-sponsored task force, Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge, which is being released today

The United States has a long history of innovation, entrepreneurship, intellectual freedom, and openness. This innovation has powered the U.S. economy and allowed the U.S. military to overmatch potential adversaries, but it is now at risk because of a decades-long stagnation in federal support and funding for research and development (R&D).

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While the United States has faced and responded to technological competition in the past, developing a national response will be more difficult this time because of three challenges. First, the pace of innovation and adoption of new technologies have accelerated. New technologies, particularly artificial intelligence, could redefine the nature and role of work, reshaping the economy and challenging political institutions and governance frameworks. Second, many advanced technologies critical to national security are dual-use and developed by private companies with complex global supply chains. This reduces the Department of Defense’s ability to control the manufacturing base through traditional policy means, increases supply chain vulnerabilities, and increases the availability of critical military technologies to all countries, even adversaries. Finally, China is closing the technological gap with the United States and will soon be one of the leading powers in technologies such as AI, robotics, energy storage, 5G, quantum information systems, and possibly biotechnology. By combining strategic planning, government-led investment, large pools of data, and a growing number of STEM talents, China aims to surpass the United States to become the world’s leading technological superpower.

Given these challenges to the United States’ technological leadership, the U.S. government and the private sector must undertake a comprehensive and urgent response. A new U.S. innovation strategy should be based on four pillars: funding, talent, technology adoption, and technology alliances and ecosystems.

1.      Restoring Federal Funding for Research and Development

Addressing the rise of China will require an ambitious plan increasing government investment in science and technology that could lead to new breakthroughs in science and engineering. This plan should include a restoration of federal funding for R&D to its historical average by the White House and Congress, additional strategic investments in universities to support cross-disciplinary work in areas of pressing economic and national security interests, moonshot approaches to society-wide national security problems led by the White House, and more comprehensive approaches to the AI and 5G challenges.

2.      Attracting and Educating a Science and Technology Workforce

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A central strength of the U.S. innovation environment has been a steady pipeline of STEM talent and the coun­try’s ability to attract the best students, engi­neers, and scientists from around the world. The White House, Congress, and academia should develop a twenty-first century National Defense Education Act to expand the pipeline of STEM talents, and increase opportunities for women and minorities. Furthermore, the United States should make it easier for foreign graduates of U.S. STEM programs to work in the United States and permit immigrants to live and work in the country if they raise funds to start new companies. To address the theft of scientific knowledge from American universities, the federal government should make targeted—rather than sweeping—efforts to increase control of sensitive technologies.

3.      Supporting Technology Adoption in the Defense Sector

The Defense Department and the intelligence community must rapidly acquire, integrate, and deploy breakthrough technologies to keep up with competitors. The Task Force recommends that federal agencies and each of the military services dedicate between 0.5 and 1 percent of their budgets to the rapid integration of technology. The U.S. government should bring people from the technology industry into the government for temporary rotations to encourage circulation of technologists, military officers, and federal officials. Congress should also establish a new U.S. Digital Service Academy and a Reserve Officer Training Corps for advanced technologies (ROTC-T) to foster the next generation of tech talent.

4.      Bolstering and Scaling Technology Alliances and Ecosystems

One of the greatest strengths of the U.S. innovation system is that it is a central node in a transnational network for turning ideas into new products. The U.S. government should create a technology alliance with like-minded countries to develop norms of state behavior in cyberspace and for AI governance, create common technology standards, coordinate export controls, and promote the secure and free flow of data. Federal agencies should also work with the U.S. private sector to incentivize international collaborative partnerships, and encourage American start-ups in emerging technologies to invest in, export to, and form R&D partnerships with firms in emerging technology ecosystems.

Facing the threefold challenge of the accelerating pace of innovation, the diffusion of multiple-use technologies, and the rise of China, the United States must act now to build a national strategy for sustaining American leadership in innovation. With renewed dedication to a national innovation security strategy, the United States can ensure its continued and future economic growth and national security.

The full Task Force report can be found here.

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