Security around the White House, DC Washington

Technology to top Trump

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After only four months of Trump, technology is looking for ways to get around the US President.

Is the US technology community at loggerheads with President Donald Trump’s administration? No. The White House will always have PayPal founder Peter Thiel. Feelings in the coal industry run the gamut from neutral to happy. Elsewhere, though, it is hard to find much confidence in America’s new Commander-in-Chief. Degrees of frustration vary, publicly.

Some executives are working with the government. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich joined Trump in the Oval Office to confirm his company’s decision to build out a fab in Arizona and lauded the President’s proposed “tax and regulation policies”. Apple CEO Tim Cook is advising Trump’s Office of American Innovation, which aims to harness private sector ideas for job creation and more efficient government.

However, Intel and Apple reacted strongly to Trump’s original travel ban covering seven predominantly Muslim countries. They signed an amicus brief against it in the Federal Court describing the ban as “a significant departure from the principles of fairness and predictability that have governed the immigration system of the United States for more than 50 years”. So did more than 100 other leading technology companies.

You need to look at how Intel and Apple are handling Trump. Their strategies exemplify the most positive types of relationship the White House can now claim with most technology companies and institutions. That is as good as it gets.

Theodore Roosevelt described the US presidency as ‘The Bully Pulpit’. Trump has taken that idea at face value. Cross him too far and economic consequences could be severe, ranging from a Twitterstorm that harms a company’s stock price (already suffered by Boeing and Lockheed Martin) to a sudden inability to secure government contracts. Whatever their reservations about Trump, CEOs have fiduciary duties and must walk a tightrope. Yet reservations remain.

Meanwhile, shifting the perspective to academia, wariness over criticising the President is also the norm. Several well-regarded engineering departments have confirmed sharp post-Trump falls in foreign applications, in some cases as high as 30 per cent. Yet their heads are careful about analysing the causes in detail publicly.

“Immigration policy is now a major worry for admissions, but it is also a political issue. Universities and other institutions must remain non-partisan. Whatever you think personally, what you say in representing the school is framed by that,” explains one head of engineering.

“Not just immigration faces those restrictions... budget cuts and their potential impact on research, policy on climate change, STEM education to high school and more... Washington can politicise your comments so that speaking up as an individual institution becomes difficult, often impossible. This trend is not new with Trump, but it has intensified since he won the election and it is very disturbing.”

Given this atmosphere, all C-level corporate executives and senior professors who agreed to comment for this article asked to do so anonymously.

As one of those executives notes, it is not simply the personality of the President and the Washington bear pit that are seeding reticence.

“This comes at you so fast. It is like the skit on ‘SNL’ [‘Saturday Night Live’] where they’re pleading with [Alec] Baldwin’s President: ‘Please, sir, can you slow down. My cell’s buzzing with some news alert every 15 minutes.’ And it is a lot like that. You wake up and it’s, ‘OK what have they done now?’” he says.

“There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with a President wanting to quickly put his mark on the Presidency – the ‘first 100 days’ thing. But they are doing a very bad job. There’s no concept of how legislation works, no consultation and no sense they know how our business works.”

Another CEO offers this observation: “It’s not ‘the bad’ that concerns us; if something is bad you can try for a workaround. The big problem is the chaos, the unpredictable. I don’t think anyone alive can remember an administration getting so chaotic so quickly. Then you come down to an established issue: commerce and uncertainty do not mix.”

There’s another factor that speaks to the very nature of engineering and innovation.

“For the last eight years, we basically had [President] Obama saying, ‘Go for it, guys. You’re doing a great job,’” says Brad Taylor, founder of grass-roots group Tech Stands Up (TSU). “If you think about some of the big technology companies today, they’re being run by guys who were still in the dorm or had only just got out of it when Obama was elected. Facebook – they had just got out; Snapchat – they were still there. They have got most, maybe all of their growth, and they got encouragement to grow under a pro-tech Obama administration.

“They’ve never experienced anything like this. That goes too for so many of the people already running the start-ups that will be the next Facebooks. This is a young world.”

As many senior figures feel dazed by Trump – as well as angered and, in some cases, already battle-fatigued – engineering is partly responding by leveraging strength in numbers.

The amicus brief has already shown the industry’s blue-chip companies working in concert. Word is that there is more such collaboration to come.

Institutions, for their part, can channel concerns through organisations such as the Union of Concerned Scientists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the IEEE.

Then, at the grass roots, new activist groups like TSU have emerged. Many are collaborating under the banner of the March for Science, versions of which are due to take place both in the US and across the world on 22 April.

We will look at how all those strands plan to address the Trump issue below, but first we need to consider what has happened in the last few months.

Everybody feared a Trump presidency would have a fractious relationship with science and engineering.

On the campaign trail, he offered some cookies – a $1tn infrastructure plan, manufacturing incentives, increased defence spending and tax reform. Yet there was also his calling-out of Apple’s manufacturing network, no end of bluster about China, the dismissal of climate change as a ‘hoax’ and his scepticism over the H-1B visa for skilled immigrant workers (even though he admitted using it for his own companies).

Nevertheless, the general feeling in the technology community after Trump’s victory was that you had to give him a chance. Yet as the President approaches just four months in office, that feeling has largely evaporated.

Outside the US, conflict between science and engineering is largely seen through two prisms: immigration and climate change, particularly the savage 30 per cent plus budget cut to the Environmental Protection Agency in the latter case. Many US scientists and engineers say problems go much deeper.

For example, less widely reported overseas has been the degree of budget cuts in the administration’s proposed budget to the overall US science base. These are, says the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), an independent think-tank, “the steepest cuts for federal R&D investment in US history”.

Its analysis continues: “These cuts are all the more troubling, given that federal funding was already at alarmingly low levels even before this proposal. In 2016, federal R&D funding as a share of GDP was at its lowest since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, and in 2014 and 2015, it was 40 per cent below what it was in the second half of the 1980s.”

There is another view. Trump’s budget is said to reflect proposals from a conservative think-tank, The Heritage Foundation. It argues that government-backed R&D “diminishes the role of the entrepreneur and crowds out private-sector investment”.

ITIF’s response, however, cites another independent and respected body, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The OECD takes the explicitly contrary view that “direct government funding of R&D performed by firms (either grants or procurement) has a positive effect on business-financed R&D (one dollar given to firms results in 1.70 dollars of research on average)”.

ITIF president Rob Atkinson believes this illustrates one critical concern building within the research sector, as these cuts come on top of those earlier reductions in federal R&D. “The major challenge for the US science community is long-term funding. Clearly, in our view, [further ongoing cuts] would be very problematic for future US innovation capabilities,” he says.

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, Dr Andrew Rosenberg, head of its Center for Science and Democracy, has other concerns.

“People are a concern with all this. You have a hiring freeze and you add budget cuts. What happens is that you stop new blood, new ideas coming into the federal research system,” he says. “Then, when money does get tight, you also get the threat of restricting the research choices: ‘If you’re not doing the science that we like, your head’s on the chopping block.’”

There is then a further worry that such decisions are taken while nobody is minding the store.

At the end of March, the office of the White House had only one member of staff, Michael Kratsios, a former chief of staff for Peter Thiel who is to serve as its deputy head. Staffing was 24 before the election.

According to the New York Times, cubicles in the larger White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) told a similar story following “scores of departures by scientists and Silicon Valley technology experts”.

Finally, analysis across the administration of the 46 science-related posts that require Senate confirmation shows that hardly any have yet been nominated, never mind approved.

Even allowing for the administration’s goal of shrinking the Washington bureaucracy, some of the vacancies are notable. They include not only two senior roles at the OSTP, but also the administrator of Nasa, the deputy director of the National Science Foundation, the undersecretary for science at the Department of Energy, the assistant secretary for research and engineering at the Department of Defence and all the lead positions bar administrator at the EPA.

“It looks like they just don’t want to know,” says another senior Valley executive. “The idea of a White House CTO was new under Obama, but the OSTP is a long-established part of government [it was set up in 1976], and lack of appointments elsewhere is a frustration given that Trump already seems to have launched an aggressive technology policy agenda.

“The administration does not seem to entertain discussion at the day-to-day policy level. For our industry and elsewhere, the President looks to be surrounding himself with people who won’t say anything he doesn’t want, sorry, needs to hear.”

Older Washington hands such as Rosenberg and Atkinson take a less impatient view. Atkinson hopes things will improve once the OSTP has its new boss (some reports note that Trump has two candidates but is yet to make a final choice). Rosenberg notes: “I’m less worried about [the higher level appointments] than the broader question of science staffing across all the levels of the federal government. Some of the executive level issues you can still attribute to a young administration.”

However, whatever specific concerns anyone has, enough logs seem to have already piled on that almost everyone feels the fire. Technology sees an accumulation of provocations in a remarkably short time.

Or, as Rosenberg puts it: “You are seeing these cartoons about Trump-years being the new dog-years – about three of our months are 26 in Trumps.”

It was reputedly physicist Wolfgang Pauli who coined the phrase ‘Not even wrong’ to describe an egregious piece of research. Many in technology would echo that in assessing President Trump’s attitude to science and engineering. Yet is despair justified?

The March for Science will be a major test of the breadth of opposition to Trump’s agenda. It almost certainly will not match January’s Women’s March – like it or not, science as an issue does not have the same reach. But a strong turnout will make for, as the political wonks say, ‘good optics’.

“If people want to get out there and march, that’s good,” says Rosenberg. “But you have to turn it into action. It’s only going to be a part of what’s needed.”

At TSU, Brad Taylor agrees. His organisation has already put together a number of events, including staff walk-outs, to highlight opposition to Trump within Silicon Valley.

“And we will be part of the march here, but the other important part will be the fair,” he says. “It gives us a chance to meet people and get them engaged with what happens next.”

One template for maintaining the impetus behind grass roots ventures like TSU was provided by recent protests against further US healthcare reform. Opponents of the Affordable Health Care Act deluged their federal representatives with phone calls and emails, and turned out in force when politicians returned home for Town Hall meetings.

Sustaining local activism could prove important for climate change regulation too. The EPA is being cut back and a recent Trump Executive Order cancelled Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power stations. Yet strong environmental regulations to similar ends could still be maintained and introduced at state rather than federal level. The Trump administration has even hinted that it may not be too strident in opposition should that happen.

At the individual level, Trump’s opponents can see something to fight for. Moreover, says Rosenberg, there are still other possible battlegrounds.

“If we are talking about an unresponsive White House, there are two other firewalls: the Senate and the courts,” he notes.

This is all about those oft-cited ‘checks and balances’ in the US political system. As President Trump’s failure to enact his two travel bans has shown, federal courts can stop anything judges deem unconstitutional. Indeed, their powers are wide ranging and the Donald is still subject to them.

“If you take another example, we have an illogical proposal that wherever a federal agency introduces a new regulation, it has to drop two other ones. Will that stand up in court?” says Rosenberg. “We’ve then also had the EPA now go against its own research and not ban a pesticide [chlorpyrifos] said to cause brain damage in children. Will that stand up? That’s a public health issue.”

Meanwhile, despite intense political divisions on Capitol Hill, many senators and congressmen often show themselves to be independent thinkers – particularly if they think their seats are in play.

A fundamental point here though is that in lobbying the politicians, particularly those in Trump’s own Republican Party, technology-led organisations must remain exactly that – like educational institutions they cannot afford to be seen as partisan.

“That is critical. If the science community becomes partisan, or is seen as partisan, that will significantly reduce its chance of receiving a positive hearing in Washington,” says ITIF’s Atkinson.

Rosenberg strongly agrees. “We have to go back to the basics of our training as scientists,” he says. “We are not left or right. Our views are evidence-based and they come from the scientific method. That has to come across with absolute clarity.”

Technology could use one of those most engineering of concepts, the workaround, in this case potentially circumventing the White House completely. And given politicians fear for their seats, there is another basic facet of the American political system that may help Trump’s opponents here. Most federal politicians have to submit to voters again in 2018.

“All the Republicans are watching his approval ratings with a view to next year,” says one engineering academic. “If those carry on falling, and if he goes below 30 per cent, he’ll struggle to get his own party to support his agenda, and particularly policies facing bigly opposition.”

The mid-terms will cover 33 of the 100 seats in the Senate and all 435 seats in the House of Representatives. As with most elections, most of those are considered ‘safe’, but with Republicans enjoying control of both houses today, there are still enough that could potentially be put up for grabs to threaten a Democratic resurgence.

From many technologists’ points of view, a few battles have been lost, but the War on Trump (such as it may be) will continue. The battle-cry may be not so much, ‘You’re Fired’ as ‘You’re Irrelevant’. 

Read more of Paul Dempsey’s regular analysis of Donald Trump's presidency.

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