Home' Technology Review : September October 2009 Contents Q&A
When President Barack Obama
announced the appointment
of the nation's first chief tech-
nology o cer, in April, he promised that
Aneesh Chopra would "promote tech-
nological innovation to help achieve our
most urgent priorities."
Chopra, who is 37 and was previously
Virginia's technology secretary, recently
spoke with Technology Review's chief
correspondent, David Talbot.
TR: Why do we need a national CTO?
Chopra: President Obama has sug-
gested there is a role for technology and
innovation across a wide range of priori-
ties. While we have had White House
leadership on technology policy in the
past, this administration has taken a
broader view of the power of technol-
ogy to reduce health-care costs, deliver
energy e ciency through smart-grid
applications, and improve the skills of
How does spending $10,000 to get
broadband to a rural farmhouse help the
It's not just broadband for the sake of
laying pipe and capacity---it's about spur-
ring innovative applications. We envi-
sion innovation in health care through
telemedicine, distance learning, and
even smart-grid infrastructure. One
example of rural innovation we champi-
oned in Virginia was creating regional
E911 services powered by broadband.
And it is conceivable that a grant that
supports a rural farmhouse would open
up higher-wage tele-work opportunities
to that resident.
What will make government smarter at
The nation's first CTO explains how IT can reboot America.
Photograph by DAVID DEAL
Government's role in promoting
technology has traditionally been in
investment for basic R&D or in the
procurement of goods and services. It
is my intention as CTO to focus on
public-private collaboration to oper-
ate between those two extremes. In
some cases, we might invest in a more
targeted R&D opportunity that would
bring private-sector resources, universi-
ties, and the public sector together on
a given problem. In others, we might
use a procurement opportunity to spur
How would that work?
For example, Defensesolutions.gov is
a website that seeks to drive innovation
toward Department of Defense needs.
Instead of procuring a specific device
described by a multithousand-item
specification, the department asks for a
solution: "How do you field-test for the
presence of explosives, drugs, and gun-
shot residue?" By leaving room for dis-
ruptive technologies in the private sector,
we can procure an innovative solution.
That might find you a disruptive technolo-
gy---but on health IT, aren t there plenty of
Yes, but to receive stimulus funds,
health-care providers will have to
demonstrate meaningful use of
technology to improve care quality,
lower costs, or improve patient engage-
ment and communication.
Is "meaningful use" an idea that should
be more broadly applied?
I would love to see this model apply in
other areas where we see policy benefits
in the adoption and use of IT.
On the smart grid, power utilities might
prove meaningful use by showing
reduced electricity demand. But decisions
are left to state regulators and local
utilities. Will you fix this?
The federal role there has been very
clear. First, we are seeding capital invest-
ment in this space through the Recovery
Act---$4.5 billion for matching funds and
demonstration projects. These initial
projects are crucial to proving the value
of the smart grid. Once the business
case has been demonstrated, we believe
that state and local decision makers
will continue investing in the build-out.
Second, we are working through NIST
[the National Institute of Standards and
Technology] on open standards to ensure
the interoperability, reliability, and secu-
rity of the smart grid. As we saw with the
Internet, open standards enable innova-
tion and scalability.
Can you tell us what a new national
innovation policy might look like?
The administration has three key goals
for strengthening America's competitive-
ness. The first is improving the environ-
ment for private-sector innovation. This
includes e orts to make the Research
and Experimentation Tax Credit perma-
nent, to encourage small businesses with
targeted capital-gains-tax reductions,
and to reform our patent system.
Second, we must invest in the build-
ing blocks of innovation, such as human
capital, fundamental research, and infra-
structure. The president has commit-
ted to double the budgets of key science
agencies, triple the number of National
Science Foundation graduate research
fellowships, and improve public-school
performance in science and math.
Finally, we must harness innova-
tion to address key national priorities,
including accelerating the transition to a
low-carbon economy, allowing Ameri-
cans to lead longer, healthier lives, and
making government more open and
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