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  • Author: Mark Lerner
  • Publication Date: 06-2021
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: We have seen software failures across every layer of government over the course of this pandemic. State governments have had significant issues with their unemployment insurance websites. Local governments have had outages and troubles with vaccine distribution services. Software systems at the Federal level have experienced significant security breaches. Trust in government is at “near-record lows,” in no small part because modern public services continually fail to meet people’s needs. The past year has shown that our public services continue to fail in the traditional ways: they cost too much, take too long to deliver, have a subpar quality, and regularly face security breaches. We have not made significant enough progress in improving government technology to prevent these troubles, let alone to provide effective, modern digital tools and technologies. Government services have largely not kept up with the raised expectations of the digital era, leaving many people without access to critical services they need. And yet, there is incredible momentum growing in the government technology space. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, we are seeing a wave of technologists from the private sector expressing deep interest in working in the government, with many actually coming into government for the first time. Anecdotally, I’ve personally heard from all manner of technologists—from fresh graduates to high-level executives— looking to work in the public sector for the first time. Thousands of technologists are applying for jobs at the U.S. Digital Service, and thousands more are signing up to volunteer with the U.S. Digital Response. These people are deciding to work and make public services better after years of becoming more aware of the ways in which our public infrastructure is failing our neighbors in most need. The federal government is also allocating more money towards these problems, in recognition of their severity. The American Rescue Plan gave $200M to the U.S. Digital Service, and $1B to the Technology Modernization Fund. The Biden-Harris Administration’s FY2022 budget request calls for even more money for tech modernization programs. These massive investments show that Congress and the Administration take these challenges seriously, and are looking for ways to address this years-long problem. If we want to have a lasting impact on the way that our country serves its people, we need to make the most of this momentum to address the root causes beneath these repeated failures. We need to focus our efforts onto the long-term work of addressing the systemic problems that cause our most critical services to fail when they are most needed. I believe that hiring more in-house technical talent might be a silver bullet to addressing the federal government’s technology problems. In this report, I hope to convince you that we need to make hiring in-house technical talent our number one technology priority in building better digital services.
  • Topic: Government, Science and Technology, COVID-19, Information Technology
  • Political Geography: Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Catherine McAnney
  • Publication Date: 06-2021
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: Lessons from the software behind America’s immigration system show us why modern technologists, from product managers to designers, are needed in government now more than ever. We know government tech projects often fail. Timelines get pushed out, contractors rapidly turn over, costs increase, and, ultimately, public services fail to meet the needs of the American people—often just as they need them most. One of the major reasons for these problems is that the federal government does not have the modern technical talent necessary to deliver large-scale IT programs that consistently work for the end user. This does not just include software engineers, but designers, researchers, and product managers too. In this case study, we’ll look at this issue through the lens of one of the most storied federal IT programs—the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) Electronic Immigration System (ELIS). We found that the program had challenges with its technical talent through the burdensome, nontechnical oversight and the lack of technical expertise on the ground. This case study pulls information from 13 GAO and OIG reports between 2005 and 2021, as well as interviews with 6 current or former senior leaders within USCIS, with a particular focus towards the technical talent associated with the project.
  • Topic: Science and Technology, Immigration, Governance, Information Technology
  • Political Geography: Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Jake Taylor
  • Publication Date: 06-2021
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: Tax credits for research and development are a means of incentivizing the private sector to invest their own resources on challenging problems. However, in practice, the fungibility of tax credits and other monetary elements can lead to misalignment between the public good represented by R&D and the actions of the company. In this policy brief, we consider the existing mechanism of tax credits. We see how they can encourage private sector risk-taking to enable research and development (R&D) outcomes. However, our goal is to go beyond economic growth benefits, and to include the less tangible considerations of public good and public purpose in the research and development domain. We then suggest an expansion of tax credits focused on supporting the researchers involved in the R&D and encouraging innovation in both large organizations and in startups and small businesses. This approach builds upon the existing framework of agency-led, mission-defined support of the private sector used by the U.S. government, as occurs in other programs such as America’s Seed Fund (sometimes known by its acronyms, SBIR and STTR). The integration of specific agency- and mission-focused elements to the credit system ensures that these additive credits support research and researchers whose R&D outcomes will improve the health, prosperity, and opportunity for the U.S. as a whole. Specific means of implementing this public-purpose R&D credit system under existing authorities within the executive branch are suggested, along with the public-facing mechanisms for creating and maintaining the evaluation approach of what constitutes “public purpose” as science and society progress.
  • Topic: Economics, Science and Technology, International Affairs, Tax Systems, Tax Credits
  • Political Geography: Global Focus, United States of America
  • Author: Christopher Lawrence
  • Publication Date: 07-2020
  • Content Type: Journal Article
  • Journal: International Security
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: The 1994 Agreed Framework called for North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-production complex in exchange for civilian light water reactors (LWRs) and the promise of political normalization with the United States. Today, scholars look back at the Agreed Framework as a U.S. offer of “carrots” to bribe the regime, but this framing overlooks the credibility challenges of normalization and the distinctive technical challenges of building LWRs in North Korea. Political and technical analysis reveals how the LWR project helped build credibility for the political changes promised in the Agreed Framework.
  • Topic: Nuclear Weapons, Politics, Science and Technology, History, Infrastructure, Crisis Management, Normalization
  • Political Geography: Asia, North Korea, North America, Korea, United States of America
  • Publication Date: 10-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: This election has already faced threats from cyber adversaries seeking to influence its outcome. The joint CISA-FBI alert confirming Russian state-sponsored activity targeting government networks on October 22 builds on other advisories around potential cyberattacks on election systems ahead of the election, including advisories of DDOS attacks against election infrastructure. Making unplanned or last-minute changes ahead of election day can introduce serious risks, especially given the short window to test changes. Here are some considerations as you work to address and prepare to counter potential cyber threats.
  • Topic: Security, Science and Technology, Infrastructure, Elections, Cybersecurity
  • Political Geography: Russia, United States of America
  • Author: Akhil Iyer
  • Publication Date: 01-2020
  • Content Type: Policy Brief
  • Institution: Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University
  • Abstract: Quantum computing refers to the use of quantum properties—the properties of nature on an atomic scale—to solve complex problems much faster than conventional, or classical, computers. Quantum computers are not simply faster versions of conventional computers, though they are a fundamentally different computing paradigm due to their ability to leverage quantum mechanics. Harnessing quantum properties, namely the ability for the quantum computer bits (called “qubits”) to exist in multiple and interconnected states at one time, opens the door for highly parallel information processing with unprecedented new opportunities. Quantum computing could potentially be applied to solve important problems in fields such as cryptography, chemistry, medicine, material science, and machine learning that are computationally hard for conventional computers. Although it is still unclear which specific tasks can benefit from parallelized quantum processing, known as quantum parallelism, it is expected that solutions to a number of problems, especially those related to optimization, can be greatly accelerated by using a quantum computer. Though the field is still in its early stages, the anticipated opportunities offered by the unique computational power of quantum computers have attracted investment from not only research universities, but also startups, technology giants like Google, IBM and Microsoft, and directed investment by governments around the world. This cross-sectoral ecosystem has supported recent progress in underlying hardware, software, and algorithms necessary to make the computers work. The field has seen rapid advancement, however systems that can accomplish various kinds of computation, and especially those that can be commercially viable, are still likely to be decades away. There are expected to be some near- term applications on the horizon though, making quantum computing as relevant as ever. Currently, U.S. governance and regulation regarding quantum computing—a subset of the broader field of quantum information science, which also encompasses quantum communication and quantum sensing—focus on investments in the technical knowhow, collaborative research ecosystem, and human capital required to advance the technology. Given quantum computing’s potential for impact, especially in the fields of digital security, healthcare, energy, and machine learning and artificial intelligence, it is important for policymakers to understand the likely trajectories of the technology over the coming decades, as well as the pace of development both within the U.S. and abroad. Furthermore, policymakers must consider how to effectively promote the development, application and implementation of general-purpose quantum technologies to realize their larger economic and social benefits, while simultaneously mitigating foreseeable risks to privacy, safety, security, and inclusion.
  • Topic: Security, Science and Technology, Governance, Regulation, Privacy, Quantum Computers
  • Political Geography: United States of America