The Biden administration has released two major science and technology policy documents this month: a National Defense Science and Technology Strategy and a National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technology.
This month, the Biden administration has completed two new strategy documents addressing concerns that R&D will not do enough to reinforce U.S. competitiveness unless it is pursued alongside a suite of complementary policies. Such concerns have been particularly motivated by China’s development of an intensive, multifaceted campaign to challenge U.S. technological leadership.
On May 9, the Department of Defense released the unclassified version of a new document called the National Defense Science and Technology Strategy, which Congress directed it to produce almost five years ago. Totaling 12 pages, the strategy presents a broad outline of policy elements DOD plans to deploy in its efforts to make full use of technologies in 14 focus areas it has previously identified.
The White House released a similarly brief document on May 4 called the National Standards Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technology. That strategy sets out “lines of effort” the federal government should pursue to facilitate the development of international technical standards that advance U.S. interests. It identifies eight technology focus areas, which overlap significantly with DOD’s areas, as well as a further six priority application areas.
Defense strategy stresses benefits of information sharing
The central emphasis of the defense strategy is on delivering technological capabilities that meet DOD’s specific needs in a highly competitive and globalized environment for advanced science and technology. The strategy states that the department aims to avoid falling into “wasteful technology races.”
To select appropriate initiatives, the strategy emphasizes the use of “rigorous analysis” in prioritizing capabilities and undertaking cooperative experimentation initiatives that serve the joint needs of DOD and the U.S. military services. The strategy also highlights the importance of “communicating clearly” across DOD, specifically citing the department’s creation of its Innovation Steering Group early in the Biden administration.
Likewise, the strategy stresses the importance of communicating with other federal agencies, industry, academia, international partners, and “above all” the public, and casts openness as a boon to innovation. “We are confident that America and our unparalleled network of allies and partners can out-compete and out-innovate strategic competitors by taking full advantage of open science, collaborative research, and free enterprise,” it states.
The strategy broadly acknowledges a need to implement safeguards to “protect sensitive technologies and military programs against intellectual property theft and technology diversion and exploitation.” However, it also states DOD is “prepared to accept more risk to share more information with allies and partners.” It further notes the department is working to address “over-classification” to facilitate collaborations even as it continues to protect classified information.
China is briefly mentioned as a competitor nation in the strategy, while several U.S. technology-focused partnerships are spotlighted. These include two the Biden administration has fostered in part to counterbalance Chinese regional influence: the “Quad” partnership between the U.S., Australia, India, and Japan, and the “AUKUS” partnership between the U.S., Australia, and the United Kingdom. The strategy also points to the Defense Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA), which NATO is currently spinning up.
Some perennial defense R&D policy themes receive extensive discussion in the strategy. These include steps DOD is taking to engage the private sector in creating a “vibrant innovation ecosystem,” to improve how technologies transition from R&D to fully scaled acquisition programs, and to reinforce laboratory and test infrastructure and the defense R&D workforce.
DOD has been intensively focused on innovation policy since the latter part of the Obama administration, but it was slow to respond to the mandate included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 to produce an associated strategy document. The Trump administration did not complete the task before its conclusion and the Biden administration took until last October to complete work on its overarching National Defense Strategy, to which the science and technology strategy was required to conform.
Standards strategy outlines ways to facilitate participation
Like the defense strategy, the new standards strategy is focused on ensuring a proper allocation of effort in priority areas. It observes, “U.S. organizations confront difficult choices on where to focus resources in a more diversified standards landscape, at times resulting in little-to-no U.S. participation in potentially disruptive technological fields.”
The federal government does not directly control such allocations. Unlike some countries that participate in international standards-development organizations through government bodies, U.S. participation is generally led by industry and technical societies and coordinated through the American National Standards Institute, a private nonprofit organization.
Accordingly, the lines of effort the strategy identifies are focused on reinforcing the U.S. model, with stronger government action called for in areas where a clear federal role exists. These actions include increasing R&D spending to provide a firmer technical basis for standards and leading the development of standards with national security and resilience implications. The strategy also calls on the government to increase diplomatic engagement on standards-related issues and to strengthen the participation of the U.S. and "like-minded nations" in international standards activities for which national governments are the official representatives.
Other lines of effort involve government facilitation of private efforts. The strategy states the government should lower obstacles to participation in standards development, citing cases where it has created standards-related exemptions in export controls and adjusted policy on the licensing of patents deemed essential to standards. In addition, the strategy calls on the government to improve standards-related communication between the public and private sectors, help “educate and empower the new standards workforce,” and facilitate broadened participation in standards development, including from smaller enterprises and “emerging economy” professionals.
In aiming for a stronger U.S. position in standards development, the strategy observes that standards have become an important arena in global technological rivalries. It states, “Strategic competitors are actively seeking to influence international standards development, particularly for critical and emerging technologies, to advance their military-industrial policies and autocratic objectives, including blocking the free flow of information and slowing innovation in other countries, by tilting what should be a neutral playing field to their own advantage.”
China is not specifically named in the strategy. However, the Chinese government recently developed its own standards strategy and Congress directed the National Institute of Standards and Technology to commission a study of that country’s growing influence in standards development via the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021. That study was performed by consulting and analytics company Exovera and completed last August.
Jayne Morrow, a standards policy expert at NIST, will discuss the new national strategy on May 23 at a webinar convened by the National Academies’ Government-University-Industry Research Roundtable.
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