Electronic Design

What Will President Obama’s Chief Technology Officer Do?

President Barack Obama’s campaign pledge to name a chief technology officer (CTO) in his administration has drawn a great deal of interest in the industry and from technical societies, which represent both industry companies and working engineers.

The IEEE, for example, says it is sensing more public interest in technology and, as a result, an opportunity to play a role in helping the United States maintain the highest standards in innovation globally and perhaps influence technology policy issues through President Obama’s new CTO.

One of the leaders in this effort is Dr. Leah Jamieson, the 2007 president of the IEEE and the John A. Edwardson Dean of the College of Engineering at Purdue University. Dr. Jamieson is also the co-founder and past director of the Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS) undergraduate engineering design program initiated at Purdue and adopted by 17 universities. She discussed her interest in the role of the new administration’s CTO with Electronic Design Contributing Editor Ron Schneiderman.

Electronic Design: What sparked your interest in President Obama naming a chief technology officer, a first for any U.S. president?

Dr. Leah Jamieson: IEEE, along with other technical societies, is interested in the public’s understanding of technology. Technology is part of everyone’s lives. How do you make it more seamless and explain where technology plays a part in people’s lives? How do you close the gap? There are also huge policy issues related to how technology is used.

ED: If you were writing a job description for the new administration’s CTO, what would it include?

LJ: This is not yet a well-defined position. People are hard pressed to define what a CTO is in a highly technical company. But I would frame it in terms of two major qualifications. First, I would be looking for an innovative, forward-looking visionary with respect to technology. I would also want someone who is collaborative across many sectors, including government agencies, industry, universities, professional societies… someone who brings people together.

ED: Do you think the president’s CTO might be perceived as a threat to the heads of other major federal government agencies whose work is highly technical in nature, such as NASA, NOAH, and even the Pentagon?

LJ: With no definition of the position, there’s going to be a huge range of opinions about how narrowly focused or broadly focused this position should be. This issue is compounded by the fact that technology touches on so many agencies within the government. For someone to be effective in this position, they’re going to have to collaborate and not end up in endless battles with the Department of Energy or the EPA, or the departments of Commerce or Health and Human Services.

ED: Are you, or are you aware of anyone, promoting the appointment of an EE or possibly a computer scientist to this position?

LJ: I’m not aware of anything like this. Certainly, the IEEE is not advocating any particular discipline for this position. I think there is a widespread sense that the person named the administration’s CTO will have at least fluency with the information industry.

If you think about technology and the country, the IT infrastructure is one of the most obvious applications of technology. It also has one of the farthest reaches in our economy, in education, and in health care. My biggest concern is that \[this position\] not be filled by someone specifically from the IT sector. IT is a huge part of the country’s infrastructure, but I hope it won’t be the only part that defines this position.

ED: President Obama has already named John Holdren, a physicist and environmental policy professor at Harvard, as his science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology. Does it make any difference to you if the president’s CTO comes out of academia, or a government agency, or the industry?

LJ: One of the ways of navigating that line is to consider this position as one that gets very close to the operations level. How do you actually make technology work well to improve country, the government, the well being of the people who live in the country?

With that focus, I suspect that someone from industry would be the strongest candidate, which is not to say that there aren’t people in academia who would be remarkable candidates. When people think about technology, there is this immediacy with an industry presence that is pretty compelling.

ED: Would you anticipate more funding for university research coming out of an Obama administration, even in these difficult economic times?

LJ: I think there will be more emphasis on and more interest in the Obama administration in basic research and in advancing the research agenda in some key areas. The challenge will be where the money comes from given the economic times, but many of us think there could be different priorities in where the money is spent. If you look at the recent appointments, it’s an administration that’s comfortable in talking with people at universities.

ED: Do you think the new CTO should be involved in what might be perceived as political issues, such as trade, jobs, and the H-1B visa controversy?

LJ: I would say perhaps not. There’s plenty to do in developing and deploying technology for the benefit of the country. Some of the issues, including employment, do bear on our technology workforce, but there are other places where those discussions are quite healthy.

ED: The IEEE and industry continues to talk about innovation. What do you think the president can do to promote innovation in the United States?

LJ: Appointing a CTO is a great starting point. It is making a vey strong statement about how important technology is in this country and how important it is to our economy.

Early on, especially given the state of the economy, one of the things the president and CTO could do would be to convene leaders from a variety of technology fields in a very visible way to brainstorm and then to start talking to the public through technology-enhanced ways about not only the history of innovation, but also to ask what is technological innovation going to do to help us come out of this economic downturn.

I’m not going to claim to have the answer to that, but the IEEE is starting some activities to try to be a forum for discussion on that question. What is the relationship between technology and the economy?

ED: Is the appointment of a CTO in the administration an opportunity to develop new educational programs that might promote technology at a national level?

LJ: The position can have a huge impact on how this administration positions technology with respect to K-12 education. What would it take to have high-speed broadband Internet in every school in the country? The second question is, how would this change the quality of education, the nature of education, and how can we use this to get kids excited about technology and being a part of this country’s future technology? I think that is something this administration can do. If you look at the campaign and look at the engagement of young people, and the campaign’s use of technology, this is something we have not seen before. This is an opportunity to speak to the younger generation in a way that is very different. I think the opportunity there is huge.

ED: The America Competes Act of 2007, which is supposed to improve U.S. competitiveness by substantially increasing federal funding of federal science agencies and institutes, has never been fully funded by Congress. Do you think this legislation will have a better chance of getting funded under President Obama?

LJ: I hope so. We are focusing a part of our message on funding this act.

ED: One more question. What would be your number-one hot-button or priority issue that you would want the new national CTO to focus on?

LJ: I would hope the focus would be on getting high-quality, high-speed Internet access to every community and every school in the country. \[President Obama has already pledged to expand the reach of high-speed Internet service and has mentioned the possibility of tax breaks for companies that extend the availability of broadband, as well as for companies that increase the speed of service in areas where it already exists.\]

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