True innovation requires big tech, academia and government work together

Risks are not only economic that harm our knowledge-intensive and technological economy; they are strategic that threaten our national and global security. We need our powerful innovation ecosystem to become more agile and more resilient against them.

Our federal government plays a key role here that only it can play. Risk assessment at the federal level should become more holistic and comprehensive by examining the impact of one hazard on another. In conjunction with universities and industry, the government coordinating body should plan for hazards that may exacerbate other hazards, and propose a strategic focus and funding for discoveries and innovations designed to respond to and mitigate them as part of a common innovation policy.

When crises arise, the federal government must be able to mobilize resources and quickly mobilize all aspects of our innovation ecosystem – from research to production and distribution – to stop the damage.

Our current crisis offers a precedent for the future: in March 2020, when the pandemic unfolded, the Ranssell Polytechnic Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, IBM, the Department of National Energy Laboratories and others quickly joined forces to create a consortium of high-performance 19 products. A number of important findings emerged from the consortium’s projects, including the identification of drug compounds that could be used to combat Covid-19. With the consortium as a model the National Council for Science and Technology has published a plan to create a National Strategic Computing Reserve to provide ongoing computing support for future emergencies.

Strengthening supply chains

If we want to learn from the pandemic, then the strategic vulnerabilities that need to be addressed include, of course, global supply chains. Designed for efficiency and cost savings, some of them have proved insufficiently resilient in times of crisis. The federal government needs to identify where bottlenecks can cause cascading effects, and plan ways to circumvent them, in part by improving our ports, expanding our domestic reserves, working with our allies to create new sources of key goods and supporting domestic production facilities for important supplies.

Experiencing a shortage of everything from life-saving personal protective equipment to smears and test reagents during a pandemic, the United States clearly needs to focus on medical supplies and key pharmaceutical ingredients. Other important products include semiconductors, which are the basis of many innovations; their lack forced them to close factories in the automobile industry. A particular problem in this case is that 92% of the most advanced chips are made in Taiwan. Due to the fact that China insists that the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland is inevitable, the risks include conflict between major powers and disruptions in industry around the world.

Modern production

Although the United States remains a leader in the semiconductor industry’s research and development, it is at a disadvantage in manufacturing, which is extremely capital-intensive and costs less in other countries, in part because of government subsidies. We need the federal government to step in violation here. A law passed by the Senate on innovation and competition, which includes $ 52 billion to increase domestic chip production, gives a good start.

We also need to eliminate possible bottlenecks in raw materials that could significantly weaken our economic and national security. China has an almost monopoly on some materials used in advanced technology. It is the world’s leading supplier of so-called rare earth elements – minerals that are crucial for electronic products of all kinds. Cobalt and lithium used in lithium-ion batteries are also key, especially as we move towards greater use of electric vehicles. China is estimated to process 58% of the world’s lithium and 65% of the world’s cobalt, most of which is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo by Chinese companies. Some of these resources, such as cobalt, are available domestically. Idaho. But identifying alternative treatment methods is an important way to address this issue in the short term.

In the long run, we need to invest in research and development to help us get around such suffocation points by finding ways to use more earth-rich materials. And we have to invent new materials. The Federal Materials Genome Initiative (MGI) was launched in 2011 during the Obama administration, when I was a member of PCAST, to use powerful data and computing tools to discover new materials through experimentation – and more rapid commercial use. MGI is currently working to integrate widely available material innovation infrastructure where tools and knowledge are shared to accelerate research, development, certification and deployment.

The climate crisis is approaching and more

Other areas crucial to economic and national security are those that can mitigate climate change, from direct capture of carbon dioxide in the air to smaller, safer advanced nuclear reactors to – later – commercial fusion energy. We also need to consider such systems in the context of our built environment, which generates about 40% of the world’s annual carbon emissions from construction. Our cities are not optimized for resilience, climate resilience or human well-being. We need cutting-edge technological solutions – renewable energy systems, smart building platforms, new materials – to decarbonise the systems of our daily lives and make sure they work for everyone.

Our vulnerabilities in cybersecurity – especially in physical systems that allow bad actors to do serious damage from afar – show that we need to work hard to create secure quantum communication technologies and move to a quantum Internet. To protect our vulnerability and minimize the effects of disasters, we need to develop both artificial intelligence – with its ability to make predictions based on imperfect information, and quantum computing to solve complex optimization problems.

Pandemic preparedness and early warning systems for health threats are also a clear priority. We have underfunded basic research on infectious diseases and need to fix this. We already have significant capabilities for disease surveillance that need to be deployed more strategically and in a coordinated manner.


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