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Think tank: New fed tech agency needed

In 2001, in the months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the White House and Congress moved quickly to create a standalone Department of Homeland Security. The new department’s mission: to develop a comprehensive strategy and tools to prevent further attacks. 

Today, some in government and industry circles argue, the country is facing a different, but in some ways equally dire challenge to its security—technologically falling behind competing countries, particularly China. This week, a think tank has issued a report calling for the creation of a new cabinet-level federal agency dedicated to developing and implementing a national strategy for maintaining the edge in advanced industry and technology. 

The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), headed by Robert Atkinson, authored the report.

“With the rise of China, the U.S. economic and technology environment has fundamentally and inexorably changed,” Atkinson writes, in the report’s introduction. “The most important step Congress and the Biden administration can take to meet the challenge is to create a dedicated national advanced industry and technology agency.” 

“Congress should establish a National Advanced Industry and Technology Agency (‘NAITA’) with the same sized budget as the National Science Foundation to manage an array of policies and programs designed to ensure long-term U.S. advanced industry leadership,” the think tank report advocates. “The new agency should have five divisions: 1) data and analysis; 2) advanced industries; 3) emerging technologies; 4) innovation systems, and 5) cross-agency and cross-government coordination.” 

The new agency is envisaged to be quite sizeable—with a proposed target of around 50,000 employees, and a budget of around $8.5 billion. The report notes that creating a government agency devoted to applied technology development of these dimensions would make it comparable—in spending and number of employees, on a per-capita comparison basis—with already-existing counterparts in other technologically powerful advanced countries. “NAITA could spend $400 million for staff, office space, travel, and other expenses, and still have over $8 billion leftover for direct funding of the kinds of programs previously listed,” the report states.

The authors of the report acknowledge that there are steep legislative barriers to realizing their idea. “To be clear, we recognize the political difficulty of creating any new agency, given [congressional] committee conflicts, a view that such reorganization is difficult, and resistance by some to larger government,” the report states. “But doing so is critical. The National Science Foundation and the academic science community play a key role in the advancement of basic science, but that is different than supporting technological innovation and value capture in the United States.” 

Specifically, NSF is often focused on basic science, the Department of Defense on defense projects, Department of Energy on energy matters, and so on down the line at existing agencies, the report notes. 

“What the United States lacks and desperately needs is a free-standing federal entity whose sole mission is supporting advanced technology industry development in order to help America compete,” it concludes. 

ITIF, founded in 2006, has raised funds from philanthropies, private industry and the federal government.

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2021 Digital Almanac

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