US policy on science and technology is facing a major shift in 2021. Writing from the States, Dr Thomas A Campbell and Damien Weldon assess the changes to come and the opportunities that could arise for Ireland.
In Ancient Greece the philosopher Heraclitus of Ephesus was known for his oracular expressions, including our personal favorite: Change is the only constant. In current times this enigmatic statement is particularly apt within US politics, especially technology policy.
Now in a presidential transition, the United States is moving from a White House widely viewed as inimical to science and technology – evidenced by many actions including withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, selective muddling of the science to battle the Covid-19 pandemic, and eschewing data-driven decision making – to one that embraces science and technology, going by the acceptance speeches of president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris.
‘Beginning with the post-election announcement of its initial four priorities, the Biden-Harris administration made its new science and technology focus clear to the world’
Following inauguration day on 20 January 2021, we can confidently predict a sea change regarding science and technology policies in the US. As noted in a previous Silicon Republic article, the incoming administration will herald a more rigorous approach to policymaking with a strong bias toward science and technology as a driving force for decision-making.
Implications for countries such as Ireland, with its strong science and technology focus and data infrastructure investment, will be profound. To give a sense of what is forthcoming, we review here several policy areas we believe will be especially impacted.
Science and technology in the Biden-Harris era
Beginning with the post-election announcement of its initial four priorities (Covid-19, economic recovery, racial equality and climate change), the Biden-Harris administration made its new science and technology focus clear to the world.
Shifts in policy directions are especially palpable regarding the handling of Covid-19 and climate change. Biden has assembled a highly respected, expert Covid-19 task force and announced that for the first 100 days of his presidency he will recommend mask-wearing within the United States. On day one of the new administration, the United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement, from which the Trump administration earlier withdrew.
The Biden administration’s political appointments at Cabinet and agency levels continue this trend with individuals who have proven track records of policymaking rigour while welcoming expert advice backed by science and technology. Moreover, the return to multilateralist approaches to scientific collaboration is clear with outreach already underway to other countries on critical global issues.
Biden-Harris on business
The Biden-Harris administration will also weigh in on several technology-specific topics that may not be welcomed by Big Tech companies. There is currently a movement toward antitrust enforcements against several of Silicon Valley’s largest leaders, including Google and Facebook. Moreover, there is bipartisan agreement that social media companies need to be held responsible for content posted by their users. How these legislative actions play out remains to be seen, but Big Tech has been put on notice that the Biden-Harris administration may not offer a simple pass on all their activities.
Approaches to trade issues will also most likely change next year. A return to supporting multilateral trade regimes such as the World Trade Organization is expected. We might see fewer cherry-picked sanctions such as those against Chinese entities such as Huawei. The president-elect may be more likely to consult and work with allies such as the European Union, Japan and the United Kingdom to implement stronger controls to keep cutting-edge technologies out of China, and be more committed than the Trump Administration in finding common ground through mutual comprise on thorny transatlantic issues such as digital regulation and data sharing.
Handling of many of these policies will most probably depend upon whether Democrats or Republicans control the Senate going into the new administration. The Senate majority will be decided in the election of two senators in the state of Georgia on 5 January. If both Democrat candidates are elected in Georgia, the Senate would be split 50-50 with the tying vote going to VP-elect Harris in the chamber. Although this tying vote does not provide Democrats a majority, given the record of strongly partisan voting, it does offer them the opportunity to push through the Senate many of the new administration’s policies that may differ from Republican positions.
What does this mean for Ireland?
Irish policymakers will be especially focused on Biden-Harris’s anticipated Big Tech regulatory actions, not just at the corporate level but also in key areas such as data privacy and artificial intelligence – all of which will play out against wider US-EU-UK trade and tax dynamics.
‘Ireland’s success in triangulating its science and technology relationships across the US, EU and UK should serve it well’
Additionally, while adapting to the new US science and technology policy landscape, Ireland enters 2021 facing a trifecta of a still-active Covid-19 pandemic, attenuating economic growth, and evolving climate change. Like its EU neighbors, Ireland must engage in all of these against the backdrop of Brexit, an issue the Biden-Harris Administration will follow closely.
This totality – while daunting – presents Ireland with as many opportunities as it does risks. Ireland’s success in triangulating its science and technology relationships across the US, EU and UK should serve it well. The Irish Government’s forthcoming National AI Strategy, aligned with the EU’s initiatives in this critical area, and its review of the National Development Plan, all provide important opportunities for Ireland to reassess and recalibrate its global vision for science and technology in the light of new US policies. The ‘greening’ of science and technology – in ‘green fintech’, for example – is just one area where policy imperatives such as climate action, government-supported R&D and regulatory re-alignment can conjoin to accelerate enterprise and innovation.
Heraclitus’ age-old aphorism of constant change will hold true early and well into the Biden-Harris administration. How Ireland embraces these shifts and engages with the US government will dictate much of the global economic impact for Ireland in 2021 and beyond.
Dr Thomas A Campbell, is founder and CEO of FutureGrasp, which advises organisations globally on trends and implications of emerging technologies. Damien Weldon is founder and president of The Molybdenum, a data science innovation hub for financial services, specialising in risk management and asset valuation. The authors gratefully acknowledge Geoff Odlum, senior adviser at FutureGrasp Foundry, for his review.