Today the United States is the predominant power in the World with its technological advantage leading the way. American technological superiority expresses itself in both economic and military power. Whether through drone, or the Internet it sits on top of the heap. The technology that drives this supremacy is largely the product of military research conducted during the more than fifty years of the Cold War. The Internet for instance was born from a defense related research project designed to enable communication during and after a nuclear conflict. The United States appears to be smugly holding its lead almost as if it were part of the natural order. While all of this isn’t terribly arguable, the situation isn’t so rosy for the United States that it can lay back and assume this situation will persist indefinitely. This is exactly what is happening and it is an absolute risk to the Country.
Several factors contribute directly to the risk the USA is taking. A number of other nations are right behind the United States and they are acting like they are behind by aggressively investing in technology. The technology that the United States depends upon is old, mature and far from the cutting edge. Most of it reflects investments, risks and the philosophy of 40 or 50 years ago when the Cold War was at its height. With the Cold War fading from sight, and victory at hand the United States took the proverbial victory lap while pulling back from the basics that provided the supremacy.
A large part of this is a lack of aggressive pursuit of R&D and a remarkably passive, fear-based approach to investment and management. The R&D goals of excellence, innovation and risk have been changed to acceptable mediocrity, incrementalism and safe bets. We have seen a wholesale change in the federal approach for supporting science. Almost without exception these changes have made the USA less competitive and actively worked toward destroying the systems that once led the World. This is true for research institutions such as federal laboratories and universities. Rather than improving the efficiency or effectiveness of our R&D foundation we have weakened them across the board. It is arguable that our political system has grown to take the USA’s supremacy completely for granted.
Without reverting back to a fresh set of investments and a forward looking philosophy the United States can expect its superiority to fade in the next 20 years. It doesn’t have to happen, but it will if something doesn’t change. The issues have been brewing and building for my entire adult life. American’s have become literally and metaphorically fat and lazy with a sense of entitlement that will be overthrown in a manner that is likely to be profoundly disturbing to catastrophic. We have no one to blame other than ourselves. The best analogy to what is happening is a team that is looking to preserve its victory by sitting on the lead. We have gone into the prevent defense, which as the saying goes “only prevents you from winning” (if you like soccer we have gotten a lead and decided to “park the bus” hoping our opponents won’t score!).
The signs are everywhere; we don’t invest in risking, far out research, our old infrastructure (roads, bridges, power plants) is crumbling, and our new infrastructure is non-existent. Most other first World nations are investing (massively) in modern efficient Internet and telecommunications while we allow greedy, self-interested monopolies to starve our population of data. Our economy and ultimately our National defense will ultimately suffer from this oversight. All of these categories will provide the same outcome; we will have a weaker economy, weak inc
omes, poorer citizens, and an unreliable and increasingly inferior defense. If things don’t change we will fall from the summit and lose our place in the World.
To maintain a lead in technology and economic growth the Nation must aggressively fund research. This needs to happen in a wide range of fields and entail significant risk. Risk in research has been decreasing with each passing year. Perhaps the beginning of the decline can be traced by the attitude expressed by Senator William Proxmire. Proxmire went to great lengths to embarrass the scientific research he didn’t understand or value with his Golden Fleece Awards. In doing so he did an immense disservice to the Nation. Proxmire is gone, but his attitude is stronger than ever. The same things are true for investing in our National infrastructure; we need aggressive maintenance and far-sighted development of new capabilities. Our current political process does not value our future and will not invest in it. Because of this our future is at risk.
Another key sign of our concern about holding onto our lead is the expansion in government secrecy and classification. The expansion of classification is a direct result of the post 9-11 World, but also fears of losing our advantage. Where science and technology are concerned, the approach depends upon the belief that hiding the secrets can keep the adversary from solving the same problems we have. In some cases this is a completely reasonable approach where elements in the secret make it unique; however in situations where the knowledge is more basic, the whole approach is foolhardy. Beyond the basic classification of things, there is an entire category of classification that is “off the books”. This is the designation of documents as “Official Use Only” which removes them from the consideration under the Freedom of Information Act. This designation is exploding in use. While it does have reasonable purpose quite often it is used as another defacto classification. It lacks the structure and accountability that formal classification has. It is unregulated and potentially very dangerous.
The one place where this has the greatest danger is the area of “export control” which is a form of Official Use Only”. In most cases standard classification is well controlled and highly technically prescribed. Export control has almost no guidance whatsoever. The information falling under export control is much less dangerous than classified info, yet the penalties for violating the regulations are much worse. Along with the more severe penalties comes almost no technical guidance for how to determine what is export controlled. Together it is the recipe for disaster. It is yet another area where our lawmakers are utterly failing the Nation.
Ultimately the worst thing that the United States does is allowing extreme over-confidence to infect its decision-making. Just because the United States has over-whelming technological superiority today does not grant that for the future. As I noted about the superiority of today is based on the research of decades ago. If the research is not happening today, the superiority of the future will fade away. This is where the devotion to secrecy comes in. There is the misbegotten belief that we can simply hide the source of our supremacy, which is the equivalent of sitting on a lead and playing “prevent” defense. As we know the outcome from that strategy is often the opposite of intended. We are priming ourselves to be overtaken and surprised; we can only pray that the consequences will not be catastrophic and deadly.
The way to hold onto a lead is to continue doing those things that provided you the advantage in the first place. Aggressive, risk-taking research with a blend of open-ended objective applied to real-world problems is the recipe we followed in the past. It is time to return to that approach, and drop the overly risk adverse, cautious, over- and micro-managed and backwards looking approach we have taken in the past quarter of a century. The path to maintaining supremacy is crystal clear; it is only a matter of following it.