Opinion

Understanding America’s Greatest Vulnerabilities

Erica R.H. Fuchs argued so persuasively that the United States needs to get better at assessing its strengths and weaknesses in critical technologies that when the federal government finally agreed with her, she was picked to do it. “I talked myself into this job,” she said with a laugh.

In September, Fuchs and 22 other professors from 13 research universities won a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a one-year pilot project for a proposed National Network for Critical Technology Assessment. The purpose is to ask hard questions about America’s innovation, including artificial intelligence, and about its supply chains, which depend on pharmaceutical ingredients from Russia and China, cobalt for batteries from Angola and advanced computer chips from Taiwan, to name a few.

The key to her project is gathering information and getting it into the right hands. “What Erica is doing is a very, very low-cost thing — just bringing together a bunch of people who weren’t talking to each other before,” Andrew Reamer, an industrial policy expert at George Washington University, told me. “That’s the low-cost, high-impact part of industrial policy, as opposed to tax credits and other interventions.” (Reamer is scanning the country for technological capabilities under a $5,000 grant from the project.)

I interviewed Fuchs by video on Tuesday from her office at Carnegie Mellon University, where she is a professor of engineering and public policy. She has a bachelor’s degree in materials science and a doctorate in engineering systems from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She’s in a hurry: By March 15, the pilot project team is supposed to produce demonstrations of how advanced analytics could inform a national technology strategy, and by Sept. 13, it’s supposed to submit a final report. (“That, for academics, is crazy fast,” she said.)

If the pilot is successful, the next step will be a bigger, ongoing operation funded by the National Science Foundation’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, which under the CHIPS and Science Act passed last year is charged with studying challenges facing the nation and emerging technologies that could help solve them.

To some people, any government role in technology smacks of socialism, but it’s existed in some form since the founding of the country, especially regarding national security. George Washington in his first State of the Union Message, in 1790, wrote that “a uniform and well-­digested plan is requisite” and manufacturing should render the United States “independent of others for essential, particularly military, supplies.” Over the years, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover and other leaders supported various strains of what’s often called industrial policy. Starting with the Reagan administration, the nation put its faith instead in low taxes, light regulation and free trade, but now the pendulum is swinging back.

Fuchs testified before Congress about technology assessment in 2020 and 2021, wrote a policy brief in 2021 titled “What Is a National Technology Strategy and Why the U.S. Needs One” and elaborated on the analytical capacity that would be required in a policy proposal last year for the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project. The goal is not picking winners and losers but “spending our limited national dollars on the right problem,” she wrote in her 2021 brief.

A clear national strategy for tech has become more important now that the federal government is spending heavily on promoting technology, including via the CHIPS and Science Act, which includes $53 billion for research, development, manufacturing and work force development in U.S. semiconductors.

“I would argue that we’re flying blind” without a thorough assessment of national capabilities in critical technologies, Fuchs told me. “Until we can define what the actual problem is, it makes it very hard to spend our money wisely.”

Sethuraman Panchanathan, the director of the National Science Foundation, told me that Fuchs’s project is an “exemplar” of what he’s trying to achieve at the N.S.F. “We need to make sure we understand where we are. This project is perfectly aligned with what we had planned.”

Fuchs is trying to keep politics out of the pilot project. She’s determined to avoid the fate of the congressional Office of Technology Assessment, which became a political lightning rod and was shut down in 1995 at the behest of House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia. “One of the mistakes the O.T.A. made is that it said what we should do,” she said. In contrast, she said, “we will provide data analytics that inform how different choices affect different outcomes. Legislators are left to decide how to balance priorities.”

The balancing act for lawmakers involves choosing among worthy objectives as wide-ranging as promoting national security, protecting the environment, creating well-paying jobs and reducing social inequality. The objectives can come into conflict, as when bringing lithium mining and refining to the United States creates jobs and makes the supply chain more resilient, but could cause local water and air pollution. But it’s possible to devise win-win solutions. The team members Elsa Olivetti of M.I.T. and Kate Whitefoot of Carnegie Mellon are searching for strategies that would help both the environment and American jobs, such as domestic development of alternative battery chemistries and new techniques for recycling critical minerals.

As an example of how critical technology assessment can work, Fuchs said that a Carnegie Mellon team helped devise a fresh approach to preventing computer chip shortages, which happened during the pandemic and impaired the manufacturing of automobiles and other products. The team found that inflexibility was a big part of the problem: Certain chips could be made only on one particular fabrication line in one particular plant. The team recommended that the government create a common base format for chips, akin to how automakers build many models of cars using the same chassis. That would make it possible for chips to be made on more than just one specialized line. Domestic and foreign chip makers could go along with the plan if those alternate fab lines belonged to them, so they wouldn’t lose business to competitors.

One member of Fuchs’s team, Rena Conti, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, is focusing on health care supply chains. That includes imported hormones that go into birth control drugs and menopause treatments used by 30 million American women, as well as generic drugs made from ingredients produced in India, China and elsewhere. Her group is looking at technologies such as synthetic biology and advanced manufacturing that would enable more reshoring of production, along with additional inspections and technical assistance on quality control to improve the reliability of ingredients that continue to be sourced from abroad.

Conti said Fuchs excels at working across the boundaries of disciplines. Fuchs is an associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research despite not being an economist. “Economists might not necessarily be understood by engineers and vice versa. She’s helping us find a common language to resolve commonly perceived challenges,” Conti said. Olivetti, a professor of materials science and engineering, agreed: “She has the ability to communicate to people across the interface. She builds a network.”

If the pilot project that Fuchs is leading succeeds in demonstrating the power of information sharing to bolster America’s technological capabilities, it will be well worth the $4 million being spent on it.


Elsewhere: A Thirst for Treasure

Central banks switched from being net sellers of gold to net buyers in 2010, and they’ve been adding to their hoards ever since. Through November, net long-term purchases of gold by central banks in 2022 were higher than in any other full year since a spike in 1967, according to data from the World Gold Council. Central banks of China, India, Turkey and recently Russia have been among the key buyers, according to Joseph Cavatoni, the council’s chief market strategist. Some central banks appear to be switching to gold from dollars in their reserves. That’s understandable: The United States and its allies froze Russia’s dollar reserves after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.


Quote of the Day

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go. So I said, call me Trim Tab.”

— Buckminster Fuller, interview in Playboy magazine, February 1972


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