Emerging Tech

Lawmakers see advanced tech gap with China shrinking

microchip (Andrey VP/Shutterstock.com) 

Congress and the Trump administration are attempting to lay the groundwork for U.S. dominance in quantum computing, artificial intelligence and other emerging-technology fields like. Where they will find and recruit the experts to lead that revolution is unclear.

While quantum computing has generated significant excitement and investment from nation stations and the private sector, it remains a largely potential and speculative tool. With practical applications still years -- if not decades – away, experts at a Sept. 25 Senate hearing urged lawmakers to focus their efforts on initiatives to develop a stronger quantum workforce and foster more public-private partnerships.

Paul Dabber, under secretary for science at the Department of Energy, told lawmakers that changing procurement rules to delegate authority to national labs for smaller agreements below $1 million would have significant impact on the government’s ability to establish new working relationships with universities and companies.

"We’re going to be making it easier, especially for the involvement of anyone from the private sector or other sectors, for the labs to take the lead without all the different bureaucracy,” Dabber said. “We have analyzed that 50 percent of all the commercialization discussions with the private sector would be covered by this delegation of authority and should accelerate it significantly.”

At a Sept. 26 hearing of the IT Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform committee, meanwhile, lawmakers and experts grappled with the best way to find and cultivate more tech talent and counter Chinese influence in a number of technology industries.

Rep. Robyn Kelly (D-Ill.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said she is introducing new legislation that would incentivize college graduates with degrees in STEM fields to teach for five years.

"This legislation would help the United States build the pipeline necessary to educate the next generation of innovators in science and technology," said Kelly.

John Neuffer, president and CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association, cited a number of impediments to building the federal IT talent pipeline, including the relatively unsexy nature of working for the federal government.

"A lot of these young kids come into this profession and want to go off and make the coolest app and work for big Internet companies," said Neuffer. "Our government does not have a big enough emphasis on promoting STEM education and our immigration policies are broken so that we can’t get the number of STEM employees we need overseas."

Chinese students represent one of the biggest opportunities for boosting the U.S. talent pipeline in emerging technologies. Approximately one-third of the current foreign student population in the United States is from China, with many pursuing STEM degrees, according to Dean Cheng, a senior research fellow for Asian Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

However, Cheng said there has been "a generational shift" recently that is leading to more Chinese students going back home after finishing their degrees.

Immigration policies have been cited as another impediment, particularly new restrictions around the H1B visas that allow foreign students who study STEM in the U.S. to legally work in the country after they graduate.

Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas) told FCW after the hearing that he favors "streamlining" immigration policies to make it easier for such students to get work visas and continue to benefit from the brain drain of other countries.

"Are they going to go do that in a country where they’re allowed to freely express their opinions and pursuits, or where they’re going to be forced to do something that somebody else wants them to do?" said Hurd. "If you graduate from a U.S. university with a master’s or Ph.D. in a STEM field, we should ensure that person [has the ability] to continue to work or even start a business in the United States."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at djohnson@fcw.com, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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