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.

Electing for the Future

By Charles Mueller

Today is one of the most cherished traditions of the United States. It is Election Day, a day where the people get a chance to voice their opinion about who should represent them in US, State, and Local governments.  Every year though this beloved day is riddled with controversy as we debate how we vote, when we vote, where we vote, who should vote, who we vote for, and why the entire process just seems destined to always fail us in some way.

I’m tired of having these same old debates.  None of these conversations recognize the real problem: year after year we refuse to accept that our entire system of governance and electing officials to represent us is not just archaic, but centuries outdated.  We live in a world of advancing technology, a world where my refrigerator can restock itself, people can transmit thoughts to each other using neurotechnology, and we can not only educate ourselves about virtually all of human history with the click of a button, but we can also communicate our thoughts and opinions just as fast.  Our society is fundamentally different in practically every way than the one that existed during the time of our founding fathers and it’s time we stop trying to make their system work for our way of life.

It is time we rethink the idea of only casting our vote once a year for those who represent us.  Why can’t Election Day be, in a sense, every day?  Why don’t we create a system where we can continually voice our confidence in our leaders, helping put the appropriate amount of pressure to keep them honest, transparent and effective as policymakers?  It’s not like we don’t have the technology to do it…

It is also time we rethink the very structure of our government and the way it utilizes things like S&T to carry out its mission to serve and protect the people.  Why can’t we create a government that is efficient and instead of being decades behind utilizing technology, is a pioneer of how to incorporate technology to carry out the job of governance?  Why do we continue to waste our time and energy complaining about the shortcomings of our governance system instead of using that time and energy to fix it?

None of this will be easy, but all of it is necessary.  The future is one where S&T will continue to change the fabric of society seemingly overnight and we need a new process for defining what government is, how it works, and how the people are involved in this next phase of our existence.  So as we all stand in the long lines today that are too part of the Election Day tradition, let’s use that time to talk with our friends and neighbors about the future of democracy and the United States, instead of continuing to complain about how awful everything is.

Let’s work together to make the future better and hopefully some day down the road, Election Day will be a time we elect some individuals bold enough to lead us into this brave new world.

The Dark Side of CRISPR

By Kathryn Ziden

The Tsarnaev brothers, who carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, built their pressure cooker bombs using instructions found in al Qaeda’s English-language, online magazine Inspire. In the same 2010 issue of Inspire, it states, “For those mujahid brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry lays the greatest opportunity and responsibility. For such brothers, we encourage them to develop a weapon of mass destruction.” Although the bombs that were detonated and discovered in New York and New Jersey this past weekend were also pressure cooker bombs, what if it had been a bio-engineered, deadly pathogen? New, inexpensive and readily available gene-editing techniques could provide an easy way for terrorists to stage bioterrorist attacks.

CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a novel gene-editing technique that has the potential to do everything from ending diseases like cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy to curing cancer. CRISPR also has the power to both bring back extinct species and cause living species to go extinct. There is hot debate currently within the scientific and policy communities about the ethical ramifications of this powerful tool and how it should be regulated. However, there is almost no discussion within these communities of the security risks that CRISPR poses, or the scary scenarios that could result from unintended consequences or its misuse.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s “Worldwide Threat Assessment” listed gene-editing techniques like CRISPR on its list of weapons of mass destruction for the first time in 2016. Here, we list some actors that could use CRISPR to create a bioweapon.

Non-state actors: Terrorism specialists have warned that obtaining a biological weapon is much easier than obtaining a nuclear or chemical weapon, given the relative ease by which components can be purchased and developed. Terror groups intent on developing biological weapons could use existing members’ skills, or send recruits to receive adequate education in the biological sciences, similar to al Qaeda’s method of sending attackers to train in U.S. flight schools prior to 9/11.

Rogue scientists: Disgruntled or mentally ill scientists could easily use CRISPR to mount an attack, similar to the 2001 anthrax attacks. However, unlike other deadly pathogens, CRISPR is widely available and requires no security clearance or mental health screening for access.

Do-it-yourself biohackers: Do-it-yourself (DIY) scientist movements are growing across the country. DIY centers now offer CRISPR-specific classes and DIY CRISPR kits are inexpensive and widely available for sale online for amateur scientists working out of their basements. Some websites sell in vivo, injection-ready CRISPR kits for creating transgenic rats (rats included), and directly advertise to “full service” and “DIY” users.

Religious groups: The first and single largest bioterrorist attack in the U.S. was perpetrated by followers of an Indian mystical leader, infecting 751 people with salmonella bacteria in 1984. In 1993, the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo attempted an anthrax attack in Tokyo, but mistakenly used a non-virulent strain.

Foreign governments: The development of bioweapons is banned under the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention; however many countries, including China, Russia and Pakistan are widely believed to have bioweapons programs. Each of these countries are also actively using CRISPR in scientific research.

The large, potential impacts of gene-editing techniques combined with the low barriers to obtaining the technology make it ripe for unintended and intended misuse. In order to address the security challenges of this emerging technology, all stakeholders need to act.

The scientific community can add value by:

  • Shifting their focus from ethical concerns to security concerns, or at least give security concerns equal footing in their discussions.
  • Engaging with the intelligence and policy communities to identify real-world scenarios that could be actualized by the actors discussed above.

Regulatory bodies can counter the risks poses by the unintended use or potential misuse of gene-editing techniques by:

  • Designating all precision gene-editing enzyme systems as controlled substances, similar to radioactive isotopes or illicit drug precursors used in research laboratories, and putting use-verification and accounting procedures into place.
  • Registering, licensing and certifying all laboratory-based and DIY users of CRISPR. Gene-editing technology users could also be required to undergo National Agency Check with Inquiries background investigations.

The intelligence community can lead the efforts of countering more serious, bioterrorism threats by:

  • Tracking all gene-editing kits or other system-specific plasmids or components, including materials already purchased during the current pre-regulation timeframe.
  • Tracking all users of gene-editing technologies, specifically looking for rogue or DIY users who fail to register, individuals actively seeking to buy kits through the black market, or individuals searching for CRISPR instructions or other relevant information online.

These recommendations are just some of the actions that could be taken to minimize risks of gene-editing technologies. CRISPR is a powerful technology that is capable of creating a gene drive that can result in mass sterilization and extinction. If it can be used to kill off a species of mosquito, then it can be used to kill off the human race. It is time to think of these gene-editing techniques in terms of an existential threat.

The Power of Imagination

By Charles Mueller

Sunday was an emotional day.  It was the 15th anniversary of one of the most traumatic days in US history, the anniversary of 9/11.  That day is burned into the memories of the American people because its events defied what we believed was possible.  We will never forget because we will always remember the day the unthinkable became reality.

The official story that came out of the investigations of 9/11 to explain how it was able to occur highlighted a failure to imagine the kinds of horrors terrorists could unleash upon our nation.  In some ways this finding was ironic because it was our imagination that helped us land on the moon, invent the Internet, and harness the atom, all accomplishments in our climb to become the world’s only remaining superpower at the time.  On 9/11 though it somehow became our weakness.  By failing to take serious what might seem impossible, by failing to imagine the extremes people might go to hurt us, we created an opportunity that could be exploited.  The sad reality of that day is that many people saw the signs of what was coming, but we still chose to ignore it; we chose to refrain from imagining it could ever take place.

That day showed the real the power of imagination.  If you can imagine it, you can often make it real.  The terrorists imagined all that took place on 9/11 and because they believed, were able to inflict a wound on this country that may never fully heal.  As we move forward, continuing to recover from that day, we must never forget this lesson; we must never forget the power of imagination.

Today we live at a time where what was once the imagination of science fiction writers is now becoming reality.  We are on the cusp of being able to engineer all types of life, including ourselves, to have the traits and properties we desire.  We are on the verge of potentially creating sentient life fundamentally different than our own.  We have tools today that are enabling our imagination to translate into reality.  As amazing as the future can be, days like 9/11 remind us that there exist those that will ultimately try to use these new technologies and their imaginations to make the future worse.  We have to remember this as we start thinking about how to manage this brave new world.

In order to ensure the future is better than tomorrow, we have to use our imagination to consider all the different ways it can go right and wrong.  We have to imagine the future we want and then work together to figure out the right path to get there.  We cannot afford another failure of imagination moving forward because S&T has simply made the stakes too high.  Let’s use the power of imagination to create a better world and ensure 9/11 is a day we remember, not relive.

Genetically Engineering Animals Modifies Nature, But That’s Nothing New

By TJ Kasperbauer

Some people want to use genetic modification to restore the American chestnut tree and the black-footed ferret. Some people couldn’t care less. Still others might think chestnut trees are ugly and ferrets are a nuisance. Choosing between these preferences is difficult. But whichever course of action we take, it won’t help to ask if we are conserving pristine nature. Instead, we must accept that we are merely modifying nature—as we have many times before.

Thinking about conservation as modifying nature conflicts with the dominant paradigm of nature preservation. Nature is to be protected, not redesigned. But this view of nature is misguided. We have always influenced nature, even if unintentionally and haphazardly. Genetic modification is only the most recent step in our long history of altering nature.

Many conservationists already accept this view of nature. For instance, some endangered and highly valued species have been relocated in order to improve their chances of survival. Doing so changes the species as well as the surrounding ecosystem—nature is changed. Captive breeding programs also frequently aim to modify the genetic makeup of the species before release. These practices also operate under the assumption that we are constantly changing nature.

Starting these discussions now helps prepare us for policy decisions we will inevitably face in the future. These decisions will be less and less about conservation and more about what we ultimately value and desire. This is difficult because there is such widespread disagreement, as illustrated by recent proposals to relocate pikas, white bark pine, and many others.

Just last week the International Union for Conservation of Nature proposed a temporary cessation of field trials and research on genetically modifying nonhuman organisms for conservation. Until the consequences have been properly assessed, they reason, such interventions are too dangerous. This conclusion is sensible—we do need more data. But the data will be quickly forthcoming, and the traditional conservation framework will not be very helpful. We must remember the potential upshot of genetic modification: not just to keep what we have, but to build and design what we want.

Are We Ready for Life at 150?

By Kathryn Ziden

A future in which we live to be 150 years old is no longer far-off or science fiction. Global life expectancy figures doubled within the last century. Advances in healthcare, precision medicine, gene and immunotherapies and genetic engineering will likely lead to increased longevity sooner than current trends predict. But are we prepared for this future?

Are we prepared for this future financially? The current system of Social Security and Medicare is failing, facing “long-term financing shortfalls,” according to the Social Security Administration.

A report out earlier this year from The Brookings Institution adds that the gap between lifetime benefits received by poor and less-educated workers versus those received by wealthy, well-educated workers is widening. In addition, age discrimination in the workplace may prevent older generations from working the longer careers that will be financially required of them.

Are we prepared for this future socially? What will the concept of marriage be like, especially given the current prevalence of “gray divorce?” An entirely new healthcare system, perhaps based on A.I., will need to be created to deal with the shifting demographics. If careers span 100 years instead of 40, innovation in corporations and universities may stall, hindered by the stagnant ideas of long-standing CEOs and professors.

Are we prepared for this future politically? Increased lifespans coupled with a slowing, but still positive population growth rate will lead to a more crowded Earth. Increased competition for resources will likely result in new domestic and international conflicts. Longer lifetimes will also increase the use of public services, placing additional strains on budgets and increasing deficit spending.

Even without major S&T advances, extended longevity is inevitable; it is time to prepare now. The good news is that all of the problems outlined here are fixable, if we begin the dialogue and planning that will be required now. There are a large number of scientists working in the field of aging, gerontology, longevity, and other biological or medical fields whose work is directly affecting human life expectancy. It is time that there be the same commitment from the policy side.

Reimagining the American Dream

By Charles Mueller

The American Dream is an idea, an idea that has driven this country and inspired the world for almost 300 years.  This dream was rooted in our Declaration of Independence with the words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

As this country has evolved, so to this dream.  This dream is about finding comfort in the idea that we live in a country where there is opportunity for all and regardless of your race, creed, sex, class or the family you were born into, through hard work and determination you can create the life you want.  However, for many, the American Dream is beginning to feel like the American Nightmare, a sick illusion of hope in a world full of fear, hostility and inequality relative to times past.  Just as James Truslow Adams inspired a nation coming out of the Great Depression in his book Epic of America by first coining and describing the American Dream, our nation today, one coming out of its own era of financial despair, needs a reimagining of the American Dream.

The generation that emerged following the first references to the American Dream was the generation that helped save the world from the evil that prompted WWII.  This generations’ ethos was all about hard work, it was about survival, it was about creating a better future for their children, and their attitudes are what came to define the American Dream.  Overtime, this generations children evolved the dream to include a greater emphasis on the pursuit of happiness.  Happiness was not necessarily hard work, it was also about working the jobs you wanted and having time to enjoy the efforts of your labor with the ones you loved most.  As the country continued to mature, this third generation of the post-Great Depression American Dream became the first to truly reap the rewards of the sacrifices of the first generation; the world they lived in was evidence of the success of their grandparents.  This generation of people was promised the American Dream was finally the American Reality.

Unfortunately, the combination of the devastating effects of 9/11 on the American psyche and the Financial Crisis of 2008 on the American wallet has challenged the ethos of our time and exposed parts of the American Dream, which have turned out to be false.  The wealth gap in this country continues to grow, hateful speech is becoming more of the norm, and graduated students are entering the job market with university degrees only to find a genuine lack of opportunity compounded with a mountain of student debt.  Hard work no longer seems to be paying off.  While this reality is still greater than many other parts of the world, it represents at minimum the flattening of the trend President Franklin Roosevelt always said should be upwards in his last Inaugural Address in 1945:

“Things in life will not always run smoothly. Sometimes we will be rising toward the heights — then all will seem to reverse itself and start downward. The great fact to remember is that the trend of civilization itself is forever upward, that a line drawn through the middle of the peaks and the valleys of the centuries always has an upward trend.”

It is time we reimagine the American Dream.  It is time we generate a new idea, a new hope, a new vision for the future that will inspire this nation once again and give new meaning to our purpose.  In a world dominated by the advancements of science & technology (S&T) the definition of hard work looks much different from the days it was synonymous with long hours on the farm or at the factory.  This new American Dream should anticipate the future that will be arriving, one where we can communicate with our thoughts, have robots do our chores and free ourselves from the limits of our genes.

This new American Dream should be about making the pursuit of happiness easier.  This is a dream where people don’t have to work harder to move up, they have to work smarter, they have to work more creatively, they have to take advantage of the world that has been gifted to them and imagine it to the future.  This American Dream should be about providing everyone with the ability to do this, giving everyone access to things like the Internet and creating new jobs that seek out the human imagination.  It should be about developing a society where we reward our creativity and ability to dream up the futures no one else can envision.

The future of the American Dream should be that no matter who you are, you live in a place where your imagination can come true, where opportunity exists to let your bold ideas grow into things that will change the world.  This is a world where opportunity still knocks even if you fail.  It is a world about the future and it will take all of us to make sure this new American Dream becomes reality.