Tech Off Radar In '08 Race
With the country's biggest presidential primary contest only a week away, most of the candidates have yet to address with any depth the technology issues driving the global economy and exerting an impact on U.S. competitiveness.
EE Times has compiled a sampler of the candidates' still-sketchy technology platforms. As our digest shows, the candidates need to do much more to articulate their plans for handling such core problems as global warming, the research funding gap and the subpar state of U.S. education in math, science and engineering.
Industry leaders have turned up the volume, with some calling for a formal dialogue among the candidates on tech matters. "I urge our nation's presidential candidates to have a debate focusing on science, engineering and technology," said IEEE-USA President Russ Lefevre. "It would be beneficial for voters to know where the candidates stand on policies that promote U.S. innovation and competitiveness." Thus far, there has been no word on whether such an event will be added to an already packed debate calendar.
Outsourcing and patent reform are divisive issues for the tech community in this election year, with engineers on one side and big-business interests on the other. But the two camps come together on such matters as federal research spending, education, energy and broadband policy.
Most of the presidential candidates favor opening the doors to more foreign skilled workers. But few have said anything--or at least anything specific--about patent reform, which is expected to come up in the Senate in February.
Candidates for office are notorious for providing more inspiration than details, and this election is no exception. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican contender, has virtually nothing to say on his Web site about the various tech issues. Other candidates mention at least some of the major tech agenda items, but few give chapter and verse about how they would tackle them if elected.
Some broad trends are nonetheless clear. The Republican candidates generally favor free trade, lower taxes and less government spending and regulation. They talk a lot about public- private partnerships--code for letting the marketplace, rather than costly new government agencies, tackle problems.
The Democratic candidates tend to throw out bold ideas for multibillion-dollar initiatives that capture the imagination, including new programs in alternative energy, education and basic research. But they fail to detail where the money will come from or how it will be spent.
On the lobbyist side, technology interest groups such as IEEE-USA, the Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) and TechNet have developed fairly specific platforms but lack the clout or resources to endorse specific candidates. At least two groups, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the AeA (formerly the American Electronics Association), have compiled cogent comparisons of the candidates' views on their respective Web sites.
Here is a brief tour, from 30,000 feet, of the issues of interest to the tech community and the candidates' plans for addressing them.
The SIA is one of the more articulate organizations on the need for more federal spending on basic research in the physical sciences. The group warns that today's semiconductor process technology, which fuels the electronics industry, could run out of gas by 2020.
"Breakthrough discoveries are needed within the next few years if a replacement technology is to be available" in time, the group warns in a policy statement. "Yet, federal investment in these key areas has been relatively flat or declining over the past 30 years."
Two Democrats are racing to take leadership on this issue. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois was first to declare a plan to double federal funding for basic research. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York originally talked about increasing federal research by 50 percent but in October updated her "innovation agenda” to match Obama's call for a doubling of research funds. Though neither candidate has provided much detail, Clinton has called for shifting funds from other areas into physical sciences; high-risk projects; new, high-profile awards for major milestones; and expanded fellowship programs.
Republicans and Democrats fairly uniformly back a move to make the R&D tax credit permanent. The temporary program has been extended 12 times since it was created in 1981.
Republicans have been generally mum on federal spending in basic research. Unlike the Democrats, the Republicans do not typically articulate a technology agenda as such, though many have policies that speak to tech industry concerns.
TechNet, a lobbying group of senior technology executives formed in 1997, has taken a leading position on this issue, calling for the delivery of 100-Mbit/second connections to 100 million U.S. homes by 2010.
Democrats have addressed the broadband issue directly, with a focus on extending access to communities that currently are not served or are underserved. They are not specific, however, about target speeds or numbers of homes. Republicans have been generally mum on the topic to date.
Among the Democrats, Clinton has called for tax incentives to encourage broadband deployment in underserved areas. She also supports making federal money available to state and local broadband initiatives.
Both Clinton and Obama said the Federal Communications Commission must revisit its definition of broadband. The FCC currently recognizes just 200 kbits/second as broadband performance.
In addition, Obama wants to reform universal service regulations to include broadband as well as voice. He has also called for a sweeping review of the FCC's spectrum policy to ensure maximum efficiency in airwave usage by both government and commercial markets.
For his part, Democratic candidate John Edwards, former senator from North Carolina, has stated a fairly general goal that broadband service be available to all U.S. households by 2010.
Among the industry interest groups, TechNet's senior-executive membership has put forth perhaps the most detailed economic agenda. The group calls for reforming Sarbanes-Oxley to reduce the legislation's unintended repercussions and compliance burdens, especially on small companies. It also stumps for policies that promote stock options and free trade.
The Democrats have been largely mum on the issues of concern to TechNet's constituency, but they stress the importance of protecting the environment and workers' rights in any future international trade negotiations.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who dropped out of the race Jan. 24, had gone so far as to call for the United States to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the World Trade Organization. He favored bilateral trade agreements based on securing workers' rights and the environment.
Republicans pretty much uniformly support a free-trade agenda, though they stress the importance of protecting U.S. companies' intellectual property holdings. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani takes perhaps the most aggressive free-trade stance of the group, followed by Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney throws in a caveat that the U.S. should require China to float its currency as part of future trade deals. Huckabee suggests he would take issue with at least parts of NAFTA.
Both Giuliani and Romney call for reining in the excesses of Sarbanes-Oxley, particularly for small businesses. Giuliani adds that he wants to lower taxes further to stimulate the economy.
TechNet has articulated a clear industry goal for doubling within 10 years the number of Americans annually completing under- graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Democrats are generally calling for an overhaul of the Bush Administration's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program, which rewards or punishes schools based on their performance on standardized tests. Republicans are typically calling for only minor tweaks to NCLB.
Obama has proposed an $18 billion increase in spending for federal education programs across the board. He has suggested targeted improvements in math and science education through reforming and funding NCLB, though he has not said what reforms he would make.
Edwards would expand math and science education and increase teacher pay as much as $15,000 a year for successful teachers, especially those working in so-called high-poverty schools. He also wants to create a national teachers university as well as a program that would pay for a year in college for students in college-prep programs who work part-time and perform well academically.
Edwards would also radically overhaul NCLB, by improving tests; allowing broader measures of school success, such as individual students' progress; and offering schools more resources and flexibility to identify and reform underperforming institutions.
Among the Republicans, Romney echoes Edwards' call for giving more flexibility to states that do well in NCLB tests and putting more focus on a student's, rather than a school's, progress on the tests. He also supports performance-based pay for teachers.
Huckabee would go further, letting states develop their own benchmarks for NCLB. On the other hand, Huckabee wants to test teachers as well as students, replacing educators who don't meet standards and rewarding successful teachers who move to low-performing schools by giving them bonuses and forgiving their student loans.
Giuliani, McCain and Romney all support giving parents more choice in which public schools their K-12 children attend. Giuliani wants to set up a competitive grant process to fund new school voucher programs for students in failing schools. Both he and Romney support more charter schools.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science has said that both Giuliani and Huckabee lack a focus on engineering, math and science education.
A handful of candidates are weighing in on issues surrounding the migration of the healthcare system to digital technology. But the public debate here has been small compared with the breadth of the emerging issues.
Obama takes the most aggressive stance from a financial standpoint. He would invest $10 billion a year over the next five years to move the U.S. healthcare system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems, including electronic health records.
Clinton said she would require people who do business with Medicare, Medicaid and the Veterans Administration to move toward adoption of electronics-based medical record-keeping systems.
On the Republican side, Giuliani has said he would invest in healthcare systems but focus on private-public partnerships and not burden industry with many new regulations.
McCain, for his part, has simply said he would push for the use of telemedicine in areas where services and providers are limited and electronic services are cost-effective.
Nearly all of the candidates have articulated the general goals of making the U.S. energy-independent and promoting research in alternative fuels. But their respective plans and spending goals vary widely.
Obama has taken the strongest stance on energy, articulating a plan to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years in biofuels and fuel infrastructure, plug-in hybrids, renewable energy sources and the transition to a digital electric grid. He also supports caps on carbon emissions and an auction system through which emission permits could be traded, which would generate some of the funds for energy research.
Obama aims to lower the nation's total carbon emissions level to 1990's carbon footprint by 2020 and 80 percent below 1990's total by 2050. He also wants to double fuel economy standards in 18 years.
Clinton has called for setting up a $50 billion energy fund, paid in part by oil companies, to pay for research in alternative technologies and provide incentives to individuals and businesses that use them. She would also set up a National Energy Council under the White House to cap carbon emissions and establish an auction system for trading emission permits.
Further, Clinton wants to reduce electricity consumption 20 percent from projected levels by 2020. She also would seek to institute policy to increase fuel efficiency standards to 55 miles per gallon by 2030, and she would set up a $20 billion program to help automakers retool to meet the new standards.
Edwards would look to create a $13 billion fund to invest in renewable energies such as wind, solar and bio- fuels, and to develop a new generation of efficient cars, trucks, buildings, public transport and industry. The initiative would generate a million new jobs, he claims.
Republicans are generally less specific on their plans in this area, although they all subscribe to the goal of making the U.S. energy-independent. Huckabee has said he could achieve that goal in eight years.
Giuliani, Huckabee, McCain and Romney all advocate investments in alternative energy. Huckabee would use federal funds as well as matching funds for private-sector investments.
Romney has said he would "substantially increase" U.S. investments in basic energy research in several areas, including "reinvigorating" nuclear energy programs.
McCain is alone among Republicans in advocating caps on carbon emissions and a system to trade in carbon credits. Romney has pointedly said he would not tax carbon emissions.
Business groups such as SIA and TechNet generally advocate, at least tacitly, expanding the number of H1-B visas and easing immigration for technical workers, claiming the U.S. has a tight talent pool. Of course, sentiment runs strong among rank-and-file engineers on the hot-button issue of offshoring as well as the H1-B visa program.
IEEE-USA has said the government must at least study the issues. Specifically, the group wants the government to "examine the costs and benefits of offshoring R&D"and the practice's "potentially adverse impact on U.S. scientific leadership and technological competitiveness." The organization also asks the government to reform H1-B and all other temporary-visa programs to prevent abuses that displace U.S. workers and underpay foreign workers.
Obama has said he supports a temporary increase in the H-1B visa program while he studies broader immigration reforms. He suggests the reforms could include easing the path for immigrants who earn degrees in the United States to remain in the country to work and become citizens. He also suggests his plan would include expanding the numbers of permanent work visas available.
Edwards does not address the issue directly but has said he would provide more money for training, grants and expanded unemployment benefits, especially for unemployed people who form startup companies.
Giuliani, Huckabee and Romney have said they would expand the number of H1-B visa available. Huckabee and Romney would seek to streamline immigration procedures to open the doors to more skilled foreign workers, with Romney calling for regular reviews of the program, as well as consolidation of numerous federal worker-retraining programs.
Both Huckabee and McCain emphasize "securing the borders" as a key plank of their immigration platforms. McCain has vowed to overhaul unemployment insurance to make it a program for worker retraining and relocation.
Internet policy, patent reform
As a group, the candidates have had surprisingly little to say thus far on these visceral topics for industry.
In talks at Google headquarters, both Edwards and Obama said they advocate Net neutrality, including preventing Internet suppliers from restricting the content or devices allowed on their networks. Separately, Obama has sketched out a plan to increase the Federal Trade Commission's enforcement budget to fight cybercrimes such as spamming, spyware and phishing.
McCain would make permanent a ban on Internet taxes that is up for renewal soon. He has also said he does not support any new taxes on cellular phone services.
Only two candidates--both Democrats--have commented on patent reform, and both have espoused relatively vague positions. Edwards and Obama have said they believe in patent reform and in fully funding the U.S. patent office. Obama has also called for a citizen review of the patent process.
Under the Bush administration, funds are no longer being diverted from the patent office, which faces a backlog of as many as 750,000 applications. And the office instituted a number of streamlining measures in 2007.
The Senate is due to take up its version of a landmark patent reform bill that the House of Representatives passed in September.
The IEEE-USA is generally taking a position closer to the patent holders' side in this debate, calling for laws that "support entrepreneurial efforts." Business groups such as TechNet are calling for "rational improvements to the litigation system that end abusive patent lawsuits."
Some industry interests have called for the president to set a broader agenda on intellectual property as part of the legal infrastructure for innovation. But thus far, none of the candidates has articulated such a vision.