Tech advice for the next president

Top thinkers share their thoughts on issues the next president will face in combating the United States' ongoing decline in global technological competitiveness

Science and technology may not have been the focus of the recent debates between presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama, but both candidates have outlined some broad policy proposals and goals. That's a good thing, because, as some of the top technology thinkers in the United States today recently shared with Computerworld, the next president will have to tackle the country's ongoing decline in global technological competitiveness.

Obama says he'll "change the posture of our federal government from being one of the most anti-science administrations in American history to one that embraces science and technology." He has promised to double federal funding of basic research over 10 years, to appoint the nation's first chief technology officer, to make the R&D tax credit for corporations permanent and to "restore the basic principle that government decisions should be based on the best-available, scientifically valid evidence and not on the ideological predispositions of agency officials or political appointees."

[ Check out "Where the presidential candidates stand on tech issues." ]

McCain has not said directly what he might do about the level of federal spending on research, but he has said he favors technology-friendly policies aimed at the private sector through "broad pools of capital, low taxes and incentives for research in America...and streamlining burdensome regulations." He says he'd make the R&D tax credit permanent and set it equal to 10 percent of the wages a company pays its R&D workers, and he says he'd allow companies to write off the cost of new technology and equipment in the first year.

Both candidates have outlined educational reforms that they say will make the United States more competitive in science and technology.

Computerworld recently asked nine high-tech luminaries to offer their advice to the next U.S. president. Their answers appear below. They represent the views of the individuals and not necessarily those of their employers.

Henry Chesbrough
Adjunct professor and executive director, Center for Open Innovation, Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley

The economic situation is as bad as it has been in decades. Innovation must be at the forefront of economic policies in [the new] administration. Innovation is widely distributed around the world, not concentrated in a few large firms in the U.S. alone. So policies must promote the division of innovation labor. These include support for start-ups and small businesses. Universities and national labs must be allowed to engage with industry on translating research results into commercial products. Markets for the sale and resale of intellectual property must be supported. Open initiatives must be promoted, especially where government can help set industry standards.

The environment for innovation must also be enhanced. More money must be appropriated for basic research. Ph.D. graduates should receive green cards to allow them to stay in the U.S. H1-B visas should be expanded. The R&D tax credit should be made permanent. And a new initiative in alternative energy led by the government -- but involving universities, industry, venture capitalists, nonprofits and research labs -- should be started immediately.

Judy Estrin
CEO, JLabs LLC; author of "Closing the Innovation Gap"

The future of our economy and our quality of life will depend on our ability to sustain a culture that supports and promotes the ability to innovate. The nation faces major challenges -- energy independence and climate change, national security, and the need for affordable, quality health care -- that threaten our future. Each of these challenges also brings opportunities, if we give innovation the attention it deserves.

One of the most crucial roles of the next administration will be to foster the right environment for innovation through wise funding and smart policy. But it must also re-energize the nation by embracing these challenges, providing a vision to inspire and engage the country at large, and bring out the innovator in each of us.

Vinton Cerf
Internet pioneer; chief Internet evangelist, Google

We must take a global leadership role on energy and global warming. We should:

1. Focus our national R&D capacity on developing renewable energy at costs competitive with coal.

2. Continue work on clean coal and restart nuclear power development.

3. Begin a major campaign for reduction in fossil fuel consumption: 100 mpg hybrids and all-electric transportation.

4. Charge DARPA with development of new, lightweight, strong materials for automobile, air- and spacecraft bodies.

5. Initiate a crash program to analyze the effects of global warming on coastal regions, and prepare responses.

6. Increase funding for weather data collection, analysis and prediction to cope with effects of global warming

7. Develop a new K-12 educational program for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

8. Make permanent the R&D tax credit, and initiate credit for use of renewable energy.

9. Strengthen the SEC and revisit banking regulations to prevent a repeat of the subprime mortgage and derivative security disaster.

10. Analyze and prepare for the massive wave of retiring baby boomers in the decade ahead.

David Farber
Professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University; former chief technologist, FCC

We have let the ability of the government to obtain advice and direction from leaders in IT decline over the past eight years. I propose that a new president re-establish the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee. This, combined with a strong science/technology adviser to the president, would provide the White House with much needed help in technology policy.

There are agencies that regulate aspects of IT, such as the Federal Communications Commission. Re-establishing the position of chief technologist as a permanent position [and establishing] a bureau that would attract technologists to join the agency would bring to the policymaking activities technical input and understanding missing these past years.

The Congress years ago lost the [Office of Technology Assessment, closed in 1995] that supplied it with studies and unbiased access to knowledge in IT. The establishment of an organization that has the staff and charter to advise the Congress can be critical in the formulation of realistic laws that impact IT. Such capability is missing now and our laws show it.

Finally, it is essential to get our brightest young scientists and technologists to intern in Washington. That requires a change in the attitudes of all levels of government and academia to recognize and reward these people for their services to the nation. The benefits to the nation and to the young future leaders who will be enormous and long-lasting.

Robert Kahn
Internet pioneer and former DARPA program manager; CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives

I want [the new president] to focus on the critical importance of continued forward-looking investment and growth in science and technology. Innovations in science and technology allow us to compete effectively in the world, fueled by a university system of research and education that is still the envy of the world. National security and economic growth are closely coupled, and our engine of economic growth depends on an educated workforce and advances in technology.

Many of the greatest challenges we face in our cities, and with our globally interconnected world, are increasingly dependent on engineering talent that knows how to apply science and technology to solving real problems. In difficult times, when multiple near-term priorities draw heavily on limited resources, it is all too easy to curtail research investments and associated technology development. This would likely shortchange our future generations. The next president should firmly resist that possibility.

Leonard Kleinrock
Internet pioneer; professor of computer science, University of California, Los Angeles

The U.S. is facing serious challenges in maintaining its global leadership in many areas. When it comes to science and technology, we still enjoy a leadership position. But we are in serious danger of losing that position due to the shortsighted view of some of our key government funding agencies.

What used to be their willingness to support long-term, high-risk, high-payoff, well-funded and visionary research has been replaced with a focus on short-term, low-risk, low-payoff, poorly funded and pragmatic objectives. Not only is this damaging our ability to win in today's competitive environment, but also it is channeling the next generation of faculty and senior researchers into small science, incremental thinking and short-term goals. In other words, we are creating an impact on the current generation of researchers and are also damaging future generations of our research community. Our pipeline of producing excellent new scientists is diminishing due to this lack of proper funding.

I urge the next president to return to the generous government funding of long-term advanced and innovative research projects for our universities and research centers.

Ed Lazowska
Professor of computer science and engineering, University of Washington, Seattle; former chairman of the President's Information Technology Advisory Committee

1. Restore integrity to U.S. science policy. It is essential that federal policy benefit from the most complete, accurate and honest scientific and technological information available. The current administration has stacked scientific advisory boards, suppressed research that conflicts with its political agenda, prevented government scientists from speaking openly with the public and the media, failed to utilize the best available evidence to guide policy, and generally denigrated science, evidence and objectivity.

2. Double, over a 10-year period, the federal investment in fundamental research by key science agencies. Essentially every aspect of IT upon which we rely today traces its roots to federally sponsored research. The current administration has decreased federal support for fundamental research in all fields.

3. Make a national commitment to science education at all levels -- K-12, undergraduate, graduate, and retraining. Nothing is more important than the education of the next generation. America is losing ground.

4. Make the R&D tax credit permanent.

5. Use technology to address these "grand challenges" of the 21st century: achieving energy independence; addressing climate change; feeding the people of America and the world; enhancing national security; further improving human health, life expectancy and quality of life; restoring and improving our urban infrastructure; protecting our environment. Each is critical; none is optional. Each requires major new advances in science and technology.

Rick Rashid
Senior vice president, Microsoft Research; former professor of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University

Over the past 10 to 15 years, there has been a retreat from the successful research investment strategies of the past -- strategies that created modern computing and the Internet. Increasing use of noncompetitive earmarked funding, short-term mission focused investment and insufficient funding for long-term and risk-taking research threaten America's economic future and position in the world.

My advice to a new administration is to work toward restoring a balanced system of support for long-term basic research in science and technology with a goal of ensuring the future competitiveness of the U.S.

Specifically, I would recommend to a new administration that it work with Congress to eliminate or limit earmark funding for science, restore the "long-term risk-taking" parts of DARPA to its 1970s/1980s form, and fund the American Competitiveness Initiative.

Victor Zue
Director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; adviser to the U.S. Department of Defense and National Science Foundation

Advances in information technology and computer science (IT&CS) have fundamentally changed the way we live, work, learn and play, and have driven progress in many fields like weather prediction and computational genomics. More important, they are the primary force that powers our economy.

At a time of worldwide economic, geopolitical and social challenges, the next president must ensure our continuing preeminence in IT&CS. Historically, revolutionary achievements -- the Internet, mobile communication, parallel computing, graphical user interfaces -- typically originated from university research and often took more than a decade to realize a $1 billion market.

Therefore, the administration must significantly increase its budget for long-term, fundamental research, e.g., by doubling the NSF budget annually for the next four years. We must invest in educating the next generation of IT&CS professionals. This will require introducing courses in high school and ensuring that those who would like to enter the field can afford it.

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This story, "Tech advice for the next president" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.