We’ve all seen the alarmist headlines, from “China Is Nationalizing Its Tech Sector” and “Worried About Big Tech? Chinese Giants Make America’s Look Tame,” to, more ominously, “As China Marches Forward on A.I., the White House Is Silent.” But even taking these stories with substantial grains of salt, one fact remains clear: China would very much like to overtake America across the spectrum of information technology, from artificial intelligence to quantum computing and beyond. If the United States wants to remain the world leader in digital technology—and keep China from nipping at our heels—we’ll have to step up our own fragmented public information technology research and development (R&D) efforts.
Indeed, America doesn’t even seem to realize there’s a global competition on the horizon. True, the Obama administration issued a series of strategic plans for artificial intelligence, big data, and other hot-button topics involving information technology and computer networks. By and large, though, these policy documents tweaked existing public R&D programs without providing for any new funding or resources—which a Republican Congress was unlikely to grant in any event. For its part, the Trump administration seems content to let Silicon Valley giants like Google take the lead when it comes to investments in America’s digital future.
Just how low a priority is digital R&D for the U.S. government today? In 2016, the United States spent some $4.8 billion on information technology R&D programs spread out across 14 agencies, ranging from the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Safety Administration to the National Institutes for Health and the National Science Foundation. These disparate efforts are coordinated by the National Information Technology Research and Development Subcommittee, a part of the National Science and Technology Council, founded in 1991 and located in the White House.
In other words, the institutional and policy framework for the federal government’s digital research efforts dates back to a time before social media, smartphones, and even the internet as we know it existed. The programs that fall under this framework remain scattered among federal agencies and departments primarily dedicated to other tasks, like national defense or basic health research. For these agencies, R&D of digital technologies will remain a means to the separate and distinct ends of their own policy goals, rather than a collective, national end in itself. Making matters worse, the federal government lacks its own in-house digital expertise to deal with the policy problems created by the continuing advance of computer networks and information technology.
There is, however, an answer to the challenge posed by global technological competition and America’s own digital deficit: America needs a civilian agency that will do for information technology and computer networks what NASA does for aeronautics and space exploration—bring federal R&D efforts under one roof and elevate its stature within government. With its own dedicated budget, a civil information-technology R&D agency will carry out cutting-edge digital research and be a unified bureaucratic champion able to fund America’s information technology priorities.
NASA’s original charter serves as good model for the mission of a civil digital R&D agency. In 1958, America had a space race to win, and Congress declared “that the general welfare and security of the United States require that adequate provision be made for aeronautical and space activities.” Despite manifest differences, much the same could be said of information technology and computer networks today. But given the ever-increasing reliance on digital technology for the basic operations of our society, the stakes today are arguably higher. To carry out this core R&D mission, this agency would conduct foundational research and develop technologies that extend the frontiers of IT and computer networks in ways that will maintain America’s edge in the emerging global race for digital dominance.
What’s more, a civil digital R&D agency can serve as a one-stop shop for digital expertise within the federal government. It can advise other departments and agencies like the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration—which now confront the policy problems created by the first wave of autonomous vehicles—on digital technologies, relieving these agencies of the need to develop their own expertise and freeing them to focus their attention and resources on their own core missions instead.
Of course, such an agency will cost real money to set up and operate. NASA’s most recent annual budget runs just under $20 billion, and pays for human spaceflight, robotic exploration, and aeronautical research. With few large and expensive projects like rockets and space stations to fund, a digital R&D agency would likely cost less per year than NASA. (To put this rough estimate in context, in 2018 alone the U.S. Treasury will forgo some $135 billion in revenue as a result of the Trump tax cuts. Given the current administration’s general hostility to the tech sector and tech itself, it’s likely—and probably a good thing—that the creation of such an agency must await the advent of a new, more friendly, president and Congress.)
Public investment in digital research is of course not a replacement for defense and private research investments—it’s a complement. With an overall budget of $10 billion and a mission focus on R&D, this agency would likely find itself in the same R&D funding ballpark as such major tech companies as Oracle and Facebook. All the same, these investments would provide a public counterweight to the immense economic power of these companies to direct our society’s digital future down paths that they alone determine.
If the United States responded to the Soviet space challenge in the late 1950s and early 1960s the same way it’s responding to today’s global digital challenges, American astronauts would never have made it off the ground, much less left their boot-prints on the surface of the Moon. There’s a better way forward: a digital NASA that unifies public investment in information technology, and gives America the ability to ride the waves of digital advances sure to come.