Innovation Monitor: The Biden Innovation Agenda

Innovation Monitor: The Biden Innovation Agenda

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Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor. Federally-funded research accounted for a third of patents granted in recent years. As we’ve seen with the coronavirus pandemic and vaccines using mRNA, federal funding, such as NIH and National Science Foundation grants are critical to supporting new discoveries.

As important as government support is for R&D, the last four years have generally not supportived innovations by policies that consistently restricted international students, issued deep cuts in science funding, and rolled back vital environmental rules.

President Biden has signed nearly two dozen executive orders to reverse the previous administration’s orders, including those on climate change and immigration. This week, we’ll look at how the President’s staffing choices and areas of focus might bolster innovation over the next four years.

As Bloomberg noted, “innovation has powered the American economy for decades, but it doesn’t occur by magic. As Thomas Edison, inventor extraordinaire, famously held, it’s mostly hard work. Biden’s administration should keep that in mind, and get to it.”

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Erica Matsumoto The Office of Science and Tech Policy (OSTP) President Biden recently appointed Eric S. Lander, the director of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and one of the leaders of the Human Genome Project, to the role of director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is now elevated to a cabinet-level position. Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council in Brooklyn, will serve as deputy director for the office.

Lander would also act as the President’s science adviser — a stark change from the previous administration, which left the role empty for 18 months. Besides Lander, the President named John Kerry as a special presidential envoy on climate change and created a White House Office of Climate Policy.

Among the science funding cuts proposed by the previous administration, there were two exceptions: AI and quantum computing actually received proposed boosts.

Former US CTO Michael Kratsios had cited the fierce “global power competition” around these technologies. The new administration recognizes this. The current secretary of state Antony Blinken noted that there is “an increasing divide between techno democracies and techno autocracies. Whether techno democracies or techno autocracies are the ones who get to define how tech is used…will go a long way toward shaping the next decades.”

The elevated OSTP role suggests that AI and QIS might be a scientific priority — not just a military one — in the coming years.

And as MIT Tech Review pointed out, Nelson’s role as a sociologist might mean that “the Biden administration understands that effective science and technology policy must also consider the social influences on and implications of scientific advancement.” Areas of Focus The Biden administration is focusing on a number of innovative technologies and agendas — including climate change, broadband, and tech regulation. Let’s briefly go over these.

Climate Change: Oil, natural gas, and coal made up 81% of the world’s energy consumption in 1990. Today, they make up 80%. Despite record amounts of investment into climate tech last year, we have little to (currently) show for it. It will take vast resources and sweeping changes to achieve the Paris Agreement’s long-term goals. President Biden’s climate goals are vast and ambitious, and they are only the beginning. As Climate-KIC noted, the world needs systems-level innovation: “technology still plays its part but so do policy and regulation, education and re-skilling, consumer behaviour, and finance.”

Broadband: Around 20M rural Americans live without reliable internet connectivity. This has a crippling effect on today’s economy. Starlink recently launched a “better than nothing” beta to address this very issue. According to President Biden’s election website, the administration plans to bring 5G coverage to every American and invest $20B in rural broadband infrastructure. It’s important to remember that the FCC has given billions to service providers that promise high-speed internet to rural areas. Unfortunately, these claims “often fall flat.”

Tech regulation: Despite Big Tech’s $59M in lobbying efforts in the first three quarters of 2020, the time may be now to address FAMGA (Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Google & Amazon). President Biden and his campaign “spent months imploring Facebook to crack down. Democrats attacked the company repeatedly for allowing Republicans to spread falsehoods online.” Rob Atkinson, president at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation has said that he thinks “for the Internet industry, in particular, it’s going to be tough sledding for the next two years at least.” Perhaps we can at least expect a rethinking of Section 230.

DoD software: The time it takes to go from prototype to program at the DoD is infamously called the “valley of death.” “You have to squint hard to see something that isn’t a legacy in DoD’s acquisition plans,” says former Defense Business Board member Steve Blank. Along with Founder Fund partner Trae Stephens, Blank is advocating for a DoD innovation fund that would “work on faster deadlines and possibly provide bridge loans so companies can get a product scaled faster or stay afloat longer.” While we haven’t explicitly heard of a plan to digitally transform the DoD, the Biden administration’s elevated OSTP may actually help companies cross that “valley.” This Week in Business History January 24th, 1860: Etienne Lenoir patents the first commercial internal combustion engine.

Lenoir used a mixture of air and petroleum fuel — “illuminating gas,” now known as coal gas, which was used in streetlights in an effort to help push forward the idea of road vehicles. Lenoir was a pioneer but his engines were not a hit. They weren’t able to be used for transport and would overheat very easily, but it was the foundation for the technology that powered the entire automobile age.

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NYC Media Lab connects university researchers and NYC’s media tech companies to create a new community of digital media & tech innovators in New York City.