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.

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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.

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.

Access Granted

Kathy Goodson

If the most diligent and efficient way to provide public information to citizens is through the Internet, then Internet access should be free. Free access to information is not only a right, but it is also an integral component of the government’s responsibility in creating informed citizens. The government provides multiple quality-controlled ways to access public information. This includes, but is not limited to, physical records at city hall, public hearings, and free public records databases. However, as the government continues to digitize public information, a new approach to providing access to this public information will be necessary. An approach that requires all citizens to have access to the Internet will ensure the public retains free access to the information found in places and documents such as libraries, public reports, and phone books.

Phone books and pay phones are examples of free access to public information. It is archaic that we still print in such high volumes. In Chicago alone, 1.2 million phone books were distributed this year. Supporters argue that greater than 50% of all Americans still use phone books, but every unwanted phone book incurs a fine for the phone company. The remaining 50% of Americans have a better resource to find public information in their pocket, their smartphone. Just like traditional public pay phones (when is the last time you saw one of those?), phone books are slowly being phased out for their smartphone counterparts. The smartphone gives us the functionality of the payphone and the information of the phone book all in one small portable device. Yes, there are great arguments for the use of pay phones including ensured access to phone services for those who can’t afford them. However, there is an equally compelling argument to provide public information to everyone in the most responsible, effective, and productive manner possible. Free Internet access as a means for public information would support that goal.

An educated public is vital to the existence of our democracy. Accordingly, the government has historically advocated literacy through institutions like the public library. However, traditional forms of free access to public information are no longer the most convenient or productive. Court records, marriage licenses, and phone books are all better utilized in electronic formats. The shift toward electronic repositories is becoming the norm. Legal electronic documents with electronic signatures are considered just as valid a their handwritten counterparts. Security clearances are digital from the initial application to the fingerprinting process. Shouldn’t we extrapolate these digitized models, such as the security clearance process, into all forms of public information? However, in order to do this successfully, Internet access has to be free everywhere, all the time. To achieve free Internet access in a quality-controlled manner, management by the government, as with other forms of outsourced dissemination of public information, will be required.

Hence, the government should supply reliable free Internet access to the masses everywhere. The hope is that public access to government information increases or at minimum maintains public literacy. Lack of access to government information debilitates people from interacting with the local, state, and federal government. The government is well aware of and has even made preparation for America’s Digital Age. Last year, a panel from the National Academy of Public Administration put out a report with 15 recommendations regarding ways to better position the federal government in our digital society for the Government Printing Office. While the recommendations prompt the retention and safeguard of digital documents, and the continued mandate of free public access, it does not focus on how this access will be given to the masses. If there is a shifting tide in how the masses obtain their access to government information, the government should be able to accommodate the need. The requirement to meet this need is competent and successful access. Thus, Internet access should be free. This ensures that the free government repositories of public information remain totally free and available.