Understanding America’s Greatest Vulnerabilities
A new article from The New York Times explores the work of the one-year pilot project for a proposed National Network for Critical Technology Assessment, which is being led by Professor Erica Fuchs.
In September, Fuchs and 22 other professors from 13 research universities won a $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a 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.
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.
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.
“I would argue that we’re flying blind” without a thorough assessment of national capabilities in critical technologies, Fuchs said. “Until we can define what the actual problem is, it makes it very hard to spend our money wisely.”
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.
Rena Conti, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, and a member of Fuchs’s team, says, "She’s helping us find a common language to resolve commonly perceived challenges." Elsa Olivetti, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, agreed: “She has the ability to communicate to people across the interface. She builds a network.”
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,” said Fuchs.)