By Peter Sayer
Jan. 6, 2017
There'll be a to-do list from the IT department in the president's "in" tray when Donald Trump enters the White House later this month.
In a cabinet exit memo published Thursday, the Office of Science and Technology Director John P Holdren and U.S. CTO Megan Smith review President Barack Obama's technology achievements, and set 10 technology priorities for his successor.
Twitter doesn't get a mention.
At the top of Holdren's and Smith's list is to invest in fundamental research, and to publish the results. Such work may one day lead to profitable products, but the pay-off is too far in the future to motivate most businesses to contribute -- and were they to do so, they would probably keep the results to themselves.
Building a team of scientists and technologists to lead the government's activities is next. They single out Obama's move to create the posts of U.S. CTO, CIO and Chief Data Scientist, as well as a host of other technical leadership posts, as key to the strategy of the current administration, and want this to continue.
It shouldn't be just business as usual: Third on the list is to set some ambitious yet achievable goals, or grand challenges, such as those that have led to advances in solar power generation and self-driving vehicles.
These efforts will founder if there isn't a continuing supply of qualified recruits, so next up is to increase access to high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. Underlying the importance of education, the OST noted that more than 600,000 high-paying tech jobs went unfilled in the U.S. in 2015, and the number has only grown since.
If Congress moves to reduce the number of skilled foreign workers in the U.S., the need for effective education will only increase.
Improving diversity and reducing the effects of bias is task number five. While one of the hopes for artificial intelligence and data analytics was that they would make decisions more fairly, it's becoming apparent that it's all too easy for them to end up automating personal prejudices and institutional biases, in hiring, funding and many other fields. The memo's authors want federal staffers to be aware of the risks, and seek to eliminate bias from their processes.
Change shouldn't all be down to the government, though: Sixth on the list of the OST director and CTO is to support innovative entrepreneurs by, among other things, continuing to promote competitive markets and reduce restrictive occupational licensing.
While funding fundamental research topped the list, maximizing the economic and social return from US$140 billion the government spends annually on that research comes in at number seven. The OST wants to open up access to the scientific papers and to the federally funded data on which they are based.