Experts Call for a U.S. National Technology Strategy as Competition Heats Up with China

Sen. Michael Bennet

Sen. Michael Bennet Pete Marovich/The New York Times via AP

There’s much to be considered as ‘what could be one of the most disruptive periods in human history’ approaches.

In producing and carrying out an increasingly important national technology strategy, the U.S. government should prioritize Cold War-era investments in research and development and reshape workforce models to incentivize more digitally-savvy personnel, officials said.

“We're entering what could be one of the most disruptive periods in human history, propelled by a convergence of technologies we can barely fathom,” Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., explained at an event held Thursday by the Center for New American Security. 

The lawmaker's keynote was followed by a panel discussion between multiple experts, including some who have comprehensively studied this topic.

Federal agencies do not currently operate under one overarching strategy that governs all technology implementation. But such a strategy is becoming more of a necessity as the nation is “losing ground to China” in areas including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, hypersonics and 5G, Bennet noted. According to the senator, China is facilitating a plan that is already connected “almost 90% of their consumers to ultra-fast internet, compared to our 25%.” The country is building factories for electric vehicles faster than the rest of the world and tripled awards of doctorate degrees in science and engineering over the past 20 years.

“They've done it all relying on tools that Stalin could only dream of to entrench their surveillance state, by vacuuming up data about their citizens’ every interest,” and exporting monitoring technologies to underpin smart cities across the world, he said.

“China's pursuing China-first policy by any means necessary, licit or illicit, and the question for us is whether we're content to be collateral damage or whether we will offer a compelling alternative and show the world that democracy—and especially American democracy—can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century,” Bennet noted. “I strongly believe we can. But we need a new approach, and we need it quickly.”

The senator secured a provision in the Intelligence Authorization Act for fiscal 2022 that would require the making of a national technology strategy and said he would “do everything” he could to get it passed. In his view, the government must act urgently to identify priorities, align federal policies and investments, and mobilize the nation “in a coherent and enduring way.”

On the panel that followed his chat, top thinkers in this realm echoed Bennet’s concerns. They agreed that any sort of prevailing strategy should include investments in government personnel and R&D pursuits that could lead to technological breakthroughs.

Pointing to research led by CNAS officials on the panel alongside him, Defense Innovation Unit Director Michael Brown noted that “federally funded R&D has declined precipitously since the Cold War.” During that time, as President Joe Biden has also pointed out, funding was 2% of the gross domestic product. But “now, for national security-oriented activity [it’s] 0.35,” Brown said.

“We've let that decline pretty dramatically, and I'm sure we'd all agree that the foundation that comes from federally sponsored R&D—the long-term horizon, the ability to take risks—really is what promotes tremendous economic prosperity,” he added.

In response to Sputnik in the 1960s, America made moves to encourage more people to pursue technical fields. Brown argued that modern global competition warrants such efforts and investments to be made again, and could be outlined in a national tech strategy. In his view, the U.S. should also shift its culture to celebrate and promote more technology and science achievements.  

I think there's a lot of room to go there, and moonshots that we need to create,” Brown said. “When's the last time we had a national moonshot? Certainly sequencing the human genome, and that was quite a ways ago. But we could be creating these moonshots with [the Office of Science and Technology Policy] in all of these critical emerging technologies. And to Sen. Bennett's point—if we inspire young people in the country to get after this, I think we'll be really pleased with the results.” 

The panelists also noted how foreign and domestic academics generally work in places where they can secure funding via cohesive and dependable research and development budgets.

“A good example of this is when Anton Zeilinger, who works out of Vienna on quantum information science, was looking to build a quantum satellite for free space quantum teleportation and communication issues. He couldn't get funding from the Austrian government—but his former student Pan Jianwei out in China was able to get that funding from the Chinese government,” CNAS Adjunct Senior Fellow and Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Intelligence and Security at the Commerce Department John Costello explained. “And they entered a joint project that is now being led by the Chinese and now they are using that and doing all sorts of research and a number of breakthroughs on free space quantum teleportation.” 

Among multiple other topics related to executing a new national strategy, the panelists reflected on what they deemed to be a somewhat controversial one: whether Commerce should gain expanded authorities in implementing economic and supply chain protections against China. 

There’s an unprecedented nature to the threats the country now poses, they suggested.

“We haven't really had this sort of challenge before where we have a strategic competitor—I guess is what we're calling it these days—who is so deeply integrated into our economy,” Emily Kilcrease, CNAS senior fellow and director of the energy, economics and security program, said. “And so that raises unique challenges when it comes to an open market system.”

Costello said when confronting these emerging challenges in the technology space, the government should consider what Commerce could potentially both provide to the intelligence community, and how the department could benefit from being closer and more integrated with it. He clarified that such a designation typically rests with a specific office or sub-office, so it likely wouldn’t mean the entire department would be part of the IC. 

“I think we have to ask ourselves—with additional resources that could come from that designation and integration, as well as the increased availability of clearances and information—could we yield a better policy on the technology and economic front by doing so? Could Commerce benefit from that in some of the actions they want to take in both the defense and offense standpoint?” Costello said. “I think the answer to both of those is ‘yes.’”