What’s Wrong with National Security S&T?

What’s Wrong with National Security S&T?

Mike Swetnam

I have an appointment with the Director of IARPA (the Intelligence Community version of DARPA) tomorrow. I tried to arrange for one of my assistants to join me but was told that they need 3 days to process clearance for anyone visiting them.


I can and have seen the President on very short notice. I have often visited the Director of Central Intelligence within an hour of asking. But visiting IARPA requires 3 days?

I know that it only takes about 3 minutes to look up one’s government clearance status on the the IC’s computers. Why three days to clear a visit?

I can apply for and get a house mortgage approved on-line in about an hour. I can get a car loan in about 15 minutes. I went to the dentist last week. He x-rayed my bad tooth, diagnosed it, pulled it, and put in a post for a new tooth in about an hour.

Three days to clear someone to visit a small IC agency?

Science and Technology is moving at break-neck speed. New ideas go from laboratory demos to products in hours. Pokemon Go topped a billion dollars revenue in less than three days after its release!

So, ask me again, “What’s wrong with US Government S&T or US government research?”

I can answer that question in about 3 milli-seconds.

THINK BIG: Climate Engineering

Within the next 10 years, American ingenuity can give us the power to engineer the environment on a global scale in order to overcome the challenges associated with climate change. It will be advancements in bio- and geo-engineering technologies that make this possible, and these technologies represent new industries and opportunities for American corporations and entrepreneurs. The next Administration should foster the development of a new industry in climate engineering so American innovation can help us engineer our way out of the climate problem. Scientific trends clearly show that the climate is changing more rapidly than in times past, even if people disagree why and whether humans are the cause. The nature of this latest shift in the global climate is likely to lead to great harm and suffering around the world if a strategy is not developed to develop and use tools for engineering our world on a grander scale. Today’s discussions and debates focus on trying to correct these trends by rolling back carbon output, ignoring the negative economic consequences of that approach. A truly successful solution will focus, not on carbon output, but on technologies that can recapture and repurpose this carbon, while also affecting the other factors that control climate.

The answer is not to try and reverse these changes, but rather to use science to engineer our way out of the climate challenge.

We can do the same to address the climate change problem today; we can use science and engineering to fix our problem and generate new economic growth. Today we are rapidly improving our ability to engineer biology to take on the properties we want, which in turn will give us new ways to engineer the environment. Pairing our advancements in bio-engineering technologies with other geo-engineering technologies gives us even more of an opportunity to take control over how the Earth changes. The opportunity exists for us to engineer a better tomorrow. To capitalize on the next big engineering opportunity, the next Administration should:

Provide the right incentives to engineer a solution to the climate problem. American innovation is what makes this country great; let’s apply that American innovation to climate engineering. Putting in place policies and regulations that encourage corporations and entrepreneurs to invest in climate engineering will usher in a new era of economic prosperity.

Ensure responsible development of bio- and geo-engineering technologies. The technologies that exist to manipulate the natural world are incredibly powerful. In the hands of the ignorant or the malicious, they could be used to destroy the world rather than improve it. New policies and control regimes will be needed to ensure these technologies are developed and used responsibly.

Study the science of the natural world and develop precision models of the climate. Unlocking the secrets of Nature will be essential to engineering our way out of the climate problem. Better scientific models of the climate will foster innovation in new technologies to improve the environment. Additionally, better models will allow safer and more efficient uses of these technologies to improve the world.


The next Administration needs to develop a comprehensive strategy that capitalizes on advancements in bio- and geo-engineering technologies in order to engineer our way out of the climate problem by helping open up new climate engineering industries for American capitalism to thrive. This will require new breakthroughs in the life and earth sciences, better models of the climate, and new control regimes to ensure these powerful tools are responsibly used and developed.

The answer to the climate challenge is to move forward, not to go back. We need to use our science and technology to develop a capability that will benefit humanity for millennia to come. The next Administration has an opportunity to not just rebuild America, but to rebuild Earth.

This week we will be publishing excerpts from the Potomac Institute’s latest report,
“THINK BIG: BIG Science, BIG Opportunities, and BIG Ideas.” THINK BIG argues that innovation in science and technology are the keys to American economic strength and national security. Rather than a return to the infrastructure, economy, and healthcare systems of the past, the report calls for a vision for the future.

THINK BIG: Revolutionizing Medicine

American medicine provides some of the world’s most innovative treatment, but variability of care across the healthcare system is high, the costs are becoming unbearable, and the overall system has not kept up with rapid technological change. The next Administration has made reforming the healthcare system a priority. The best way truly revolutionize the practice of medicine is to look to the future and leverage the power of data, scientific, and technological advances.

The future of medicine in America works for the patients, not for the status quo. It harnesses technological advancement, open data, and personal data to bring innovation to the forefront, to lower costs, prevent disease, and improve treatment. To reach this future, we need policy solutions and funding plans that are as pioneering, flexible, and as rapid as the science and technology that will bring us new cures.

Incremental revisions to current policy and funding programs cannot get us to this future; visionary policy and programs that are designed from the foundation up will. Piling more layers on the ailing and crippled healthcare policy foundation of the past works against us and keeps our systems locked into a dysfunctional and obsolete framework. Structuring regulation and targeting investment together towards a data-driven, risk sharing, and patient-centered future for medicine are key to enabling a brighter future.

An effective revolution in medicine should:

Harness the potential of big data and internet-of-things devices. The future of medicine will take advantage of real-time sensing and data collection capabilities. Diagnostics will transcend reliance on comparisons to average expected values and be determined by the precision of individual health baselines. Individualized treatment and diagnosis will often happen outside of the clinic during daily life. Data from every patient and every treatment will be integral to the continuous evaluation and re-evaluation of medical practice.

Shine a light onto healthcare economics. The current system obscures economic data in order to continue charging America more for providing poorer care; transparency is key to building the healthcare system of the future. Price discovery coupled with real-time analytics will reduce costs and abuse, reveal inequities so that they can be addressed, and enable competition and the development of new mechanisms for cost sharing, liability, and insurance.

Train the healthcare workforce of the future. Artificial-intelligence-based medical education systems, modular certification infrastructure, and simulation-based practicums will allow us to develop the types of skilled providers that we need where and when we need them. Future licensing and certification requirements will be based upon the knowledge and skills that practitioners need for the practice of medicine in a real-time, data-driven world.

Re-envision the biomedical research system. The future of research will be built upon a foundation of artificial intelligence and real-time sensors. It will be relieved of barriers to data access. Better physical models of human health will be realized, ushering a new a new era of personalized medicines and treatments that target causes instead of symptoms of disease. Research will be a national pursuit with every patient participating as a partner. Enabled by a system that connects everyone and everything, clinical trials will be long-term, large cohort, and diverse. Discoveries will come from our homes and our high schools as well as our universities and industry.


America needs a healthcare plan for the future, designed to shape a system that will support innovations in healthcare delivery, treatment, science, and technology for 2050 and beyond. The new Administration has an opportunity to reimagine healthcare as we know it and make America the world leader in healthcare innovation and opportunity. A revolutionized American healthcare system can be the greatest system that the world has ever seen!

This week we will be publishing excerpts from the Potomac Institute’s latest report,
“THINK BIG: BIG Science, BIG Opportunities, and BIG Ideas.” THINK BIG argues that innovation in science and technology are the keys to American economic strength and national security. Rather than a return to the infrastructure, economy, and healthcare systems of the past, the report calls for a vision for the future.

THINK BIG: Fostering American Industry Leadership

The future of American industry should be to maintain its position as a world leader by employing a bold, strategic national industrial policy. Instead of reacting to the forces of globalization, America should harness the forces of globalization to our benefit. We should be the major pioneer of new industries, and a nation that works with global supply chains, while maintaining a robust and secure domestic ecosystem to prevent reliance on other countries. This is necessary not only for economic vitality but also for national security.

Harness Globalization to Benefit the U.S.

Globalization has allowed large and small companies in every industry to operate without allegiance to any single country. Instead of fighting that reality, we should leverage America’s strengths to incentivize companies to bring their business to the U.S.

Respect and Protect Ideas. A major strength of the American business environment is that companies that invest in innovation can profit from good ideas. In today’s global marketplace, IP protection has become highly valuable, but current systems need updating to keep pace with the rapid rate of technological change. The damages to the U.S. economy due to IP theft have also grown to the level of hundreds of billions of dollars per year. A new IP system is needed that is based on two simple principles: 1) if taxpayer dollars funded the creation of the IP, then the public owns it, and 2) if IP was generated in the American private sector, then our country should put its full weight behind protecting that IP on the global market. The U.S. needs to show the world that it is a place where IP rights are clear and protected.

Change Industrial Tax Policies to Bring Companies to the United States. U.S. tax policy currently incentivizes some companies to move their operations and profits offshore. The U.S. has one of the highest corporate tax rates (35%) in the world, and taxes U.S. companies on foreign profits, which leads them to stash foreign earnings offshore rather than bringing them back to the U.S. These policies are counterproductive and dis-incentivize businesses from operating in the U.S. or investing their earnings in the U.S. economy. Industrial tax policy should make it more attractive to bring businesses here, guided by the principles that if companies want to sell here, they should put their business here. This would include reducing the corporate tax rate to a globally competitive rate of 15% and encouraging reinvestment of foreign profits in the U.S. without penalty.

Protect industries that are critical to national security. In failing to recognize the reality of global supply chains, the U.S. has also come to rely on other countries for critical resources, leaving strategic industries vulnerable to manipulation by our adversaries. We need to recognize that some industries – such as energy and semiconductors – should not be fully globalized, because they introduce fundamental vulnerabilities. A bold industrial policy must operate based on the principles that we must protect our vital industries. Providing tax reductions to industries critical to our national security would incentivize a healthy domestic ecosystem for those industries. If an industry is critical to our national security, we should be willing to take extra steps to ensure its protection.

Creating the Industries of the Future

Commercial industry changes at much faster rates than the U.S. government. New industrial policies need to look to the future of industry, not the present. Countries have the most to gain by being the heart of innovation in existing and emerging industries.

Invest in Research and Development (R&D) to seed the industries of the future. The industries that will be of major global significance in the next 10 to 20 years are evident today, and the U.S. government should invest in helping them grow in this country. The scientific fields of bioengineering, neuroscience, materials science, and machine learning have rapidly advanced, producing a wealth of knowledge that will drive the development of new technologies. The U.S. should place considerable focus on funding applied R&D in these areas, to harvest the many fruits that basic research has yielded.

Foster innovation and transition hubs. Centers for Industrial Innovation (CII) can accelerate the generation of new technologies and start-up companies, as well as provide workforce development. If the Federal government is an active player in such centers for innovation, it allows for continued access to new ideas that can be transformed into technologies uniquely suited for government applications. Government input and funding of such centers will insulate them from becoming captive to the largest players of the industries they support. Connecting these CII to Regional Extension Centers (a major policy program that propelled the agricultural revolution of the last century) will help U.S. companies leverage emerging technologies sooner, allowing faster increases in industrial efficiency.


The U.S. needs a unified strategic industrial policy that leverages America’s strengths on the global stage. The White House should release a public document detailing an industrial policy strategy within the first 100 days. Such a policy should make the financial environment easier for companies to bring their business to the U.S. – including lowering the corporate tax rate to 15% and not taxing international profits brought into the U.S. As well, it should consolidate copyright and patent laws into a single, simplified legal structure for IP protection. These new policies should focus on protecting American IP globally, making companies pay their fair share for goods sold in the U.S., and incentivize companies to bring their business back to this country. The U.S. should also institute policies focused on creating industries of the future by funding R&D efforts in strategic areas that will seed emerging industries, fostering the formation and growth of centers for industrial innovation, and supporting advancements in and widespread adoption of automation in all industries. With these policies, American industrial leadership will be driven by the smartest workforce in the world, strong IP protections, innovative research and development, centers that transition ideas into new technologies and markets, and economic policies that help businesses thrive.

This week we will be publishing excerpts from the Potomac Institute’s latest report,
“THINK BIG: BIG Science, BIG Opportunities, and BIG Ideas.” THINK BIG argues that innovation in science and technology are the keys to American economic strength and national security. Rather than a return to the infrastructure, economy, and healthcare systems of the past, the report calls for a vision for the future.

THINK BIG: America’s Future-Structure

This week we will be publishing excerpts from the Potomac Institute’s latest report,
“THINK BIG: BIG Science, BIG Opportunities, and BIG Ideas.” THINK BIG argues that innovation in science and technology are the keys to American economic strength and national security. Rather than a return to the infrastructure, economy, and healthcare systems of the past, the report calls for a vision for the future.

The new Administration has identified infrastructure projects as a top priority. We must not merely rebuild or fix our current infrastructure; rather, we must reimagine the infrastructure of the future and invest in the technologies and businesses to achieve that future. The country has a unique opportunity to imagine and build a new America – to be the world leader in infrastructure innovation. Major infrastructure projects of the past, from the National Highway System to the commercial aviation sysem, have launched new industries and driven major economic development. America’s future will be a world of autonomous vehicles, universal access to information, and unlimited energy.

To reach this future, we need an innovative infrastructure investment plan. Our Future-Structure will include:

Autonomous vehicles that free humans from driving, accidents, and vastly reduce the costs of travel. Automated flying vehicles will revolutionize both commercial and personal travel.
Ultra high-speed internet access will be a universal right and will be available to the entire population just as fresh water is a national mandate, today. Entire new industries and intellectual freedoms will be born out of universal access to mankind’s knowledge base.
Super high-speed travel will usher in a new age of trade and transportation. Vast distances will be covered in minutes via ultra high-speed trains, super-sonic planes, and hyper-loop cargo systems.
Inexpensive energy will become a reality through new methods of generating and storing energy, not via a new grid but by eliminating the grid. Every home, vehicle, and electronic device will generate its own power from the vast energy provide by natural forces. Large, nationwide energy grids will become obsolete.
Education will be revolutionized when we put an iPad in the hands of every child in the country, giving them access to the world’s knowledge and customized, selfpaced learning. The next generation will know more and be more enabled than ever before.
Deep-space exploration and colonization will become possible, and eventually routine. The U.S. will become the global hub for space travel.


America needs an infrastructure investment plan for the future. We must leap ahead of current infrastructure systems to meet the technology-enabled demands of the next 50 to 100 years – and beyond. With a mandate to “rebuild America,” the new Administration has an opportunity to radically transform America’s infrastructure and ensure our status as the world’s economic and technology leader. Let’s embrace the future, not rebuild the past.

Think Big: Science and Technology Policy Priorities for the Next Administration

Kathryn Schiller Wurster
Nov 29, 2016

UPDATE: Read the full report, “THINK BIG: BIG Science, BIG Opportunities, and BIG Ideas.”

The priorities of the new Administration are to rebuild American infrastructure and reinvigorate the economy. Rather than return to the infrastructure and economy of the past, we should look to the future and think big. America’s strengths in innovative science and technology will help us leap forward and maintain our economic strength and global leadership.

The Potomac Institute was founded over twenty years ago in a politically turbulent era- Newt Gingrich and the Republicans had just taken over Congress, written their Contract with America, and dissolved the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) on the premise that it was too partisan when dealing with science and technology policy issues (a decision that has been much debated since). The Potomac Institute was founded to fill the role of a non-partisan, objective, and technically competent advisor to Congress and the Administration, regardless of party. The Institute was founded on the principles that 1) science should inform policy and 2) policy should foster the growth of science. Most importantly, the Institute works to anticipate emerging technologies and their associated policy implications, then guide investments to shape the future we want.

We urge the new administration to develop policy based on the best available science. In policy-making, the best available science can take many forms- from technical and experimental data to economic data to social science research findings. Most important, however, is that any policy be informed by the available information on potential impacts. Often policy-makers must make decisions based on incomplete or insufficient data- in those cases, we must use what is available and then support efforts to increase the available data. The concept of using science to inform policy should be non-partisan; data and evidence should form the basis of solid policy that all can agree on.

We urge the new administration to foster the development of science and technology. Economic development starts with good ideas and translation into products, and industry and government each have important roles in this process. If America leads the world in innovation, economic strength will follow, but to get there we have to focus on big ideas for the future rather than trying to return to the successes of the past. The science and technology investment priorities the Institute has identified for the next Administration include:

Revolutionizing Medicine: Advances in genetics, precision medicine, sensors, and big data analytics hold great promise to revolutionize human health. The costs and inefficiencies of the American health care system could be vastly improved by leveraging technology, putting more power in the hands of the patients, and adapting the medical workforce.

Renewing American Infrastructure: Major public investments to achieve great things are a hallmark of American history; we went to the Moon, built an atomic bomb, built an interstate highway system, and created the Internet. When we set big goals and invest in the science and technology needed to achieve them, the benefits are enormous. We need revolutionary new infrastructure projects to drive America forward, not just fix what is broken.

Industrial Policy: The U.S. needs a strategic national industrial policy to drive economic development and preserve industries that are vital to national security. This industrial policy should focus on fostering American innovation, helping American companies stay competitive in a global marketplace, and protecting intellectual property.

Biotechnology and Climate Engineering: These fields promise immense benefits but also represent unprecedented power to shape the world around us in ways we may not yet fully understand. The government has an important role to play in fostering innovative research and ensuring responsible development of biotechnologies.

Innovation in science and technology are the keys to American economic strength and national security. We will not lead the world by investing in old technology, old infrastructure, and old ways of doing business. The way to maintain America’s leadership and keep our country and economy strong is to think big.

The Science of an Upset

By  Kathryn Schiller Wurster

Donald Trump won the presidency last night, taking the electoral college despite what appears to be Clinton’s narrow win in the popular vote. The results surprised nearly everyone in the media and polling world, who had almost entirely predicted a wide margin of victory for Hillary Clinton. Even Nate Silver’s blog FiveThirtyEight, which has earned a reputation for crunching numbers in exquisite fashion, had Clinton with much better odds throughout most of the race, with the final odds at 70/30 Clinton to Trump the day before the election.

But all the numbers crunchers depend on polls and statistical methods that aren’t reliable and now seem remarkably old fashioned. A Nature article examined this problem in mid-October and blamed the decline of landlines, rise of mobile phones, “shy voter” behavior, and unreliable online polls. At one time in history, calling people on the phone and asking them questions may have been the best way to find out their opinions and predict their likely behavior. But this election has just proved that it doesn’t always work. The UK saw a similar upset against the pollsters’ predictions in the Brexit vote.

The problem is what people say on the phone is likely driven by lots of other factors, especially when the candidates and poll questions are controversial. Conducting phone surveys today also relies on an increasingly outdated mode of social interaction, likely biasing the samples. Online polls likely have their own biases; they also rely on people answering honestly and having a representative sample. In the end, it is clear that asking a small subset of people questions cannot be relied on to give us a real picture of what likely voters are actually going to do.

At the same time, we have more data streams about people, and correlations to their behavior, than ever before. Advertisers can target microgroups based on incredibly detailed demographics. Each of us leave vast trails of data everywhere we go; these trails could be mined to answer all the questions pollsters ask (and likely much more). Social network analysis should be able to tell us who the influencers are and measure their impact on the outcomes.

Now we need a team of statisticians and big data analysts and marketing gurus to look back at trends in data from a wide range of sources in the lead-up to the election. We need a forensic investigator to try to find correlations and trends that we missed along the way and connect the dots that led us here. The margins were narrow, so it may be that – for now – the degree of uncertainty we have to accept is still greater than the margin of error in the actual results. But we should be able to do better than this.