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January 21, 2009

The Change We Need?

The US is a power-house of IT innovation. But what will be Obama’s impact on science and technology, and how did ‘Web 2.0’ help him win the election?

By Jason Stamper

Barack Obama’s campaign team pointed out that as a share of GDP, American federal investment in the physical sciences and engineering research has dropped by half since 1970. There’s a reason that they chose that particular date, of course: it coincided with the winding down of the US government’s massive investment in ‘the space race’.

But whether federal investment in basic research really is lower than it should be in the US, or this was just the creative use of statistics, what is Obama’s track record in these fields, and what are his plans?

Before the US presidential election, Obama and Senator Tom Coburn teamed up to pass a law that they said will “lift the veil of secrecy in Washington”, by creating a Google-like search engine that will allow “ordinary Americans” to track federal grants, contracts, earmarks, and loans online.

In the Senate, Obama passed three amendments to the America Competes Act, to increase participation of women and under-represented minorities in the professions of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Presidential plans

Obama has been a long-term supporter of increased stem cell research. He introduced legislation while a member of the Senate that would allow embryonic stem cell research in Illinois. He co-sponsored legislation to allow greater federal government funding on a wider array of stem cell lines.

He says he will protect the openness of the Internet, supporting the principle of network neutrality. He also wants to get broadband to “every community” in America.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about Obama’s attitude to technology is how he intends to use it to open up Government to its citizens. “The Bush Administration has been one of the most secretive, closed administrations in American history,” he says. “Our nation’s progress has been stifled by a system corrupted by millions of lobbying dollars contributed to political campaigns, the revolving door between government and industry, and privileged access to inside information — all of which have led to policies that favour the few against the public interest.”

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Obama says he will use the latest technologies to reverse this dynamic, “creating a new level of transparency, accountability and participation for America’s citizens.” He says he will use technology to reform government and improve the exchange of information between the federal government and citizens.

Just last week, it was announced that’s Salesforce CRM Ideas technology is being used on the Website to gather input from the American people as part of an effort to, “foster greater collaboration with citizens and a more transparent government.” The application is now live at

He also says he will appoint the nation’s first Chief Technology Officer, to “ensure that our government and all its agencies have the right infrastructure, policies and services for the 21st century. The CTO will ensure the safety of our networks and will lead an interagency effort, working with chief technology and chief information officers of each of the federal agencies, to ensure that they use best-in-class technologies and share best practices.”

Steven G Maysonave is president and CEO of US-based application modernisation vendor Relativity Technologies. He has worked in the technology industry for over 35 years, including seven years at Intel and over twenty years in international business development. Commenting on Obama’s plan to hire a US CTO, he told CBR, “If implemented, a key factor will be where it fits within the administration’s power structure (a cabinet-level position?). It could have a major impact on US tech policy and ultimately the country’s economy.”

Obama also says he will give, “Americans the chance to participate in government deliberations and decision-making in ways that were not possible only a few years ago.” But he’s not forgotten about fears over ‘big brother’, either. He says he will safeguard citizens’ right to privacy: “As president, [I] will strengthen privacy protections for the digital age and will harness the power of technology to hold government and business accountable for violations of personal privacy.”

He’s outlined schemes such as investing $150bn over the next ten years in renewable energy research – biofuels, plug-in hybrids and so on. Similarly he says he will increase funding for biomedical research, and says he believes it should be possible to lower health care costs by investing in technology – he has said he will invest $10bn a year over the next five years to move the US health care system to broad adoption of standards-based electronic health information systems, including electronic health records.

Obama has said he, “Will also work to increase the representation of minorities and women in the science and technology pipeline, tapping the diversity of America to meet the increasing demand for a skilled workforce.”

He says he will reform the patent system, too. Finally, Obama says he intends to reverse the decline in federal funding of science and research. He says he will double federal funding for basic research over ten years.

“Obama has indicated that he will propose doubling federal funds for basic research in areas like physics, life sciences, mathematics, and engineering over a 10 year period,” says Relativity Technologies’ Maysonave. “He believes the US needs to continue to innovate and that the government can help stimulate part of that. Hard to argue with, assuming the funds are well directed and managed.”

Tom Berquist is Ingres CFO and former large cap software analyst at Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. CBR asked him what he thought Obama’s election in terms of science and technology. “I do worry that he is going to have to dig the country out of recession which is going to focus his attention on consumers and away from businesses over the next two years,” Berquist said.

“His proposed increase in the capital gains tax rate will hurt stock ownership on the margin and make it more difficult for start-up tech companies to get funded,” said Berquist. “And finally, the increase in taxes for high income earners will make them less likely to take risks, and building new technology companies is all about taking risks.”

Obama’s secret weapon: Web 2.0

Whatever your view of Obama’s likely impact on science and technology, it’s inarguable that he used ‘Web 2.0’ technologies to help him win the election.

There were stark differences between Obama’s and John McCain’s use of technology in their own campaigns. While Obama was using social networking site Twitter, blogging, and raising millions of dollars from small donors through a brilliantly-executed website, McCain was struggling to find his technological feet.

Indeed analysts noted that much of the tech talk surrounding McCain focused on his self-confessed computer ignorance. I’m an illiterate who has to rely on my wife for all of the assistance that I can get, McCain said in an interview with Yahoo/Politico earlier this year. McCain also admitted that he has, Never felt the particular need to email.

Obama’s campaign team was way ahead of him. They constantly updated Obama’s Twitter presence with the candidate’s latest activities on the campaign trail. Twitter is a service that people usually use to provide friends and acquaintances with personal updates and on-the-spot thoughts. For a presidential candidate to use the service showed he was bang up-to-date with the younger generation, or the so-called ‘Millenials’.

But even more important to Obama’s success in the elections was the fact that his website helped bring in over $200m towards the campaign fund, from over a million donors. 850,000 participated in what became the Obama social network.

McCain was able to raise just a fraction of this amount through online donations. The amount of fundraising brought in by small donors through Obama’s campaign website should not be under-estimated. In 2004, George W. Bush and John Kerry, the Democratic Party nominee, raised $696m between them. In this campaign, Obama had raised $650m on his own by late October.

More than three million people donated to Obama’s campaign, twice as many than to  any presidential candidate in the past. Nearly half the money came from people giving less than $200, many of them donating through his website. As a result, Obama was able to outspend McCain on advertising by four to one in almost every medium, from national television to video games and indeed, the Internet.

So whatever you think of Obama’s attitude to science and technology, it’s all too clear that technology, and the Internet in particular, helped him win the US presidential election. He has Web 2.0 to thank, at least a little bit. No doubt Cameron and Brown will be watching all of this with more than a passing interest.



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