Scientist looking at a computer chip through magnifying glass.
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The National Science Foundation and the New Frontier of S&T Diplomacy

emerging technologies NSF United States Americas
  1. The Systemic Challenge

Technology innovation can provide enormous benefits: creating jobs, spurring the emergence of new services and industries, and creating new opportunities for development and prosperity.1 Technological advances have helped make people more prosperous, healthier, more literate, and longer-lived than at any other time in history.2 Advancing research and development (R&D) is critical to the continuation of such benefits and to meeting challenges such as climate change.

The ways in which the growth of modern industrial power reordered geopolitics also illustrate that technology can affect societies’ relative power and influence, making technology competition a feature of international relationships. Today, the United States and its partners are in a technology-fueled competition with China.3 This race has some similarities to the military-technology competition in the Cold War, but also significant differences—not least in that today’s challenges are broader, more diffuse, and are evolving with more ambiguous timelines and metrics than simply “winning the ‘space race.’” Nor is today’s geopolitical dichotomy purely competitive, for the U.S. and Chinese economies remain interdependent, and cross-cutting issues such as the global pandemic and climate change create incentives for cooperation.

Yet for all its complexities, competitive strategy is now clearly the “new normal,”4 and there is “bipartisan support [in the U.S.] for efforts aimed at challenging China in technology,” such as rethinking semiconductor export controls, creating manufacturing alliances with partner countries, and boosting cooperative R&D investment.5

  1. A New National S&T Agenda

The first to master tomorrow’s technologies will have the advantages that come to innovation first-movers.6 Central to the United States’ success is how skillfully our government works with stakeholders across the innovation economy and uses R&D to catalyze emerging technology use cases. This is especially important because, while our innovation model still works in some areas, it is falling short in others, such as in performing the capital-intensive and/or interdisciplinary work that was in the past often performed by large corporate laboratories such as Bell Labs,7 as well as in addressing “under-funding in the middle-ground ‘valley of death’ in the technology life cycle between basic research and late-stage commercialization.”8

A key part of the science and technology (S&T) agenda advanced by the Biden administration and key stakeholders in Congress is to establish a new component of the National Science Foundation (NSF)—the Technology, Innovation, and Partnership (TIP) Directorate—to help translate scientific research into national solutions.9 Some current proposals for NSF funding also envision more than doubling NSF’s budget by 2026.

NSF Budget: Authorization and Appropriations


Comparison of current NSF budget over the last seven years with projected authorizations included in Senate (USICA) and House (COMPETES) bills. Financial data and graphic courtesy of Matthew Hourihan (AAAS).

NSF has not traditionally focused much on the “valley of death,” allocating only around 13 percent of its research budget10 to applied research.  As it spends its budget in the future—particularly if it receives the new windfalls contemplated in current legislation—NSF will need to direct funds to take advantage of key opportunities and remedy market failures on a prioritized basis, develop metrics and monitoring methodologies for tracking progress, ensure coordination and accountability, and maintain the agility to remain relevant on the cutting edges of a rapidly-changing technology environment.  Beyond this, however, if it is to address the “valley of death,” NSF will have to transform its processes and culture to support technology transitions at scale.

It will, for instance, need to learn to manage solution-oriented technology portfolios that balance stakeholder needs and project performance with available resources. An example is establishing a select number of specific applied research priorities, informed by continuous engagement with relevant government agencies, industry, academia, nonprofits, and state and local governments. The “cross-cutting platform”11 of NSF’s TIP will need to advance key technologies and take discoveries to market, and should lead agency strategic planning and coordination of large-scale cross-directorate initiatives, such as in supporting diversified portfolios of projects across different types of organizations with differing risk profiles, focusing upon scalability and commercial potential. Because TIP will work to accelerate the fielding of scientific discoveries that have already been made rather than producing such discoveries in the first place, it will also need to develop new partnership mechanisms—including for project funding—that do not need to go through the “gateway” of traditional basic research peer review.

Because such work will be novel for NSF, TIP will need to learn from best practices in other parts of the government—including DARPA, the Energy Department’s ARPA-E, the Office of Naval Research, and NASA’s Applied Sciences program—which are more accustomed to structuring programs and workforce skillsets to facilitate applied science. TIP will need to spearhead new partnerships with government, industry, and academic entities to holistically address the most critical challenges,12 identifying the “right” partners in each portfolio area, involving them at the start of each new effort, and giving them regular opportunities to collaboratively evaluate progress and having a voice in when and how to undertake course corrections.

  1. The United States, Not Alone

This work will need international cooperation and coordination. So far, S&T issues have been approached primarily through the prism of unilateral U.S. policy, as part of President Biden’s direction to undertake the first full-scope review of federal S&T policy since 1945.13 Yet because the United States needs to enlist others in resisting “techno-authoritarians”14 such as China, it is also critical to build partnerships across international frontiers.

The idea of using diplomacy to advance technological competitiveness is not new. Israeli diplomats and industry leaders, for instance, have been active in building access to technology markets in developing countries,15 and Estonia has leveraged technology to build digitized “soft power” out of proportion to its small size.16 From a U.S. perspective, however, the challenge of today’s world is in how best to mobilize for competitive advantage vis-à-vis a “near-peer” economy of China.

To counter China’s efforts to build its power and influence abroad and advance its domestic strategies,17 technology diplomacy has also become important for the United States. U.S. diplomats, for instance, have worked with their counterparts to coordinate export control policies,18 promote Western over Chinese civil nuclear technology,19 entice foreign semiconductor firms to open new facilities in the United States,20 and raise awareness of the threat of Chinese companies gaining strategic footholds in high-technology markets.21 (On the more cooperative side of the ledger, the United States also now has a special envoy for climate issues, and appears to have integrated the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines into at least some diplomatic negotiations.22)

Such outreach continues to be a U.S. priority, as reflected in new organizational forms. Independent experts had recommended a new State Department bureau to manage diplomatic engagements on cyberspace security and emerging technology issues.23 The Trump administration proposed a new Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies Bureau,24 and the Department recently announced it was indeed creating a new bureau to lead diplomatic efforts on international cybersecurity, international digital policy, and digital freedom, as well as a new special envoy for critical and emerging technology issues.25 This should produce new opportunities for cooperation and partnership, both for interagency stakeholders such as NSF and for foreign governments.

Technology diplomacy is here to stay.

  1. A New S&T Diplomatic Agenda

The Biden administration must not merely build NSF’s TIP into a new catalyst for the U.S. innovation economy. It must also ensure that TIP builds relationships with like-minded foreign partners. To its credit, NSF understands the need for international partnerships. It participates in science-related international bodies and various international scientific endeavors, and has links to foreign research programs through intergovernmental S&T agreements.26 NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering promotes “international partnerships and networks to leverage NSF and foreign resources” and creates “opportunities for U.S. leadership to shape the global science and engineering agenda.”27

As NSF improves its ability to transition basic research into fielded solutions, it will need to work more closely with the U.S. Department of State and other interagency stakeholders to increase the coordination of international partners in higher-level national policy engagements. This will need to occur not simply with governmental counterparts, but also with private sector, academic, and other stakeholders, both in countries with which the United States will have to collaborate and cooperate in technology innovation and in those in which it will wish to catalyze technology uptake. As NSF seeks to improve coordination with research portfolios at other federal agencies and with U.S. industry, develop better approaches to technology certification and validation, augment scale-up capabilities, and support effective strategies for manufacturing and supply chain management, it will need to participate in collaborative diplomatic outreach in these regards as well.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee has recognized, in calling for improved R&D cooperation with partner countries critical to our National Technology and Industrial Base,28 such international collaboration is key to success. NSF will need to build support for joint international funding opportunities as well—work that could include leveraging NATO’s new multi-national fund focusing on “build[ing] an innovation pipeline across the Atlantic.”29

As the National Science Board (NSB) has made clear, the United States is no longer able to lead global science and engineering (S&E) across the board, for no nation today is the world leader in all areas.30 Instead, the United States must be what the NSB describes as “a keystone—an essential nexus that is instrumental to the structure and success of the global S&E ecosystem,” by bridging regions, groups, and sectors in order to germinate breakthrough discoveries and help shepherd them “from imagination to impact.”31 Such a catalytic bridging function, in turn, would be impossible without broad engagement with a wide range of partners across national borders, highlighting the essential role that diplomacy will play in the United States’ S&T future.

All of this will not stop “techno-democracies” and their private sectors from competing with each other in the marketplace, any more than public-private partnerships (PPPs) within the United States can erase competitive dynamics between their participants.32 Nor should it stop such competition, for the competitive effervescence of these countries’ economies is essential to their success against authoritarian challengers.

Nevertheless, the United States and its friends have shared interests in ensuring that our national S&T policies do not work at cross purposes and squander opportunities for progress. This creates opportunities for international collaboration.

We face formidable challenges, and have been losing ground to Beijing’s revanchist techno-nationalism. Nevertheless, the United States remains a huge technology power. In collaboration with partners in democratic economies such the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada—which collectively have a gross domestic product more than three times China’s33 and nearly hold their own even vis-à-vis China’s torrent of patent applications34—there is surely no obstacle we cannot overcome.


  1. See generally, e.g., Elena Kvochko, “Five Ways Technology Can Help the Economy,” World Economic Forum, April 13, 2013,; Jorge Arbache, “Seizing the Benefits of the Digital Economy for Development,” VoxEu, September 28, 2018,
  2. See generally, e.g., Nick Routley, “How Global Health and Wealth Has Changed Over Two Centuries,” VisualCapitalist, February 14, 2021,; C.W., “Did Living Standards Improve During the Industrial Revolution?,” Economist, September 13, 2013,
  3. Christopher Ford, “Charting New Horizons: Technology and U.S. Competitive Success,” MITRE Corporation, Center for Data-Driven Policy, August 2021,
  4. Geoffrey Garrett, “Biden’s China Challenge,” Politico, May 6, 2021,; Christopher Ford, “Competitive Strategy in Divided Times,” Arms Control and International Security Papers 1, no. 19 (October 15, 2020),
  5. One Big Challenge for Biden? China’s Push for Tech Supremacy,” Wired, November 9, 2020,; see also, e.g., Bob Davis, “U.S. Enlists Allies to Counter China’s Technology Push,” Wall Street Journal, February 21, 2021,
  6. Deborah R. Ettington, “First-Mover Advantage,” Reference for
  7. Christopher Ford, Charles Clancy, and Duane Blackburn, “A ‘Horizon Strategy’ Framework for Science and Technology Policy for the U.S. Innovation Economy and America’s Competitive Success,” MITRE Corporation (May 2021): 5–6,
  8. Ford, “Charting New Horizons,” 3; cf. Alan L. Frohman, “Technology as a Competitive Weapon,” Harvard Business Review (January 1982), ““… [I]f a company decides to exploit technology as a competitive weapon, it had better do more than merely invest in R&D. … [A] company’s decision to rely more heavily on technology should be coupled with a commitment to satisfy the conditions necessary to implement it”; Some specific parts of the U.S. government already focus, in effect, upon trying to bridge this gap, such as ARPA-E within the Department of Energy. See, e.g., ARPA-E, “U.S. Department of Energy Announces $100 Million to Support Cutting-Edge Clean Energy Technologies: New Funding Supports American Manufacturing of Clean Energy Technologies that Have Shown Potential for Commercialization,” December 16, 2021, As yet, however, there is no such approach that works across the breadth of U.S. technology ecosystems.
  9. National Science Foundation, budget proposal for Directorate of Technology, Innovation, and Partnerships,; S.1260, “United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021,” introduced June 8, 2021,; H.R. 2225, “National Science Foundation for the Future Act,” introduced July 12, 2021,
  10. Federation of American Scientists, “Federal Research and Development (R&D) Funding: FY2020,” March 18, 2020,
  11. Jeffrey Mervis and David Makaloff, “Applied Research Gets Starring Role in Biden’s 2022 Budget,” Science Insider, June 1, 2021,
  12. Ford, Clancy, and Blackburn, 6.
  13. Carl Zimmer, “Biden to Elevate Science Advisor to His Cabinet,” New York Times, January
    15, 2021,; cf. “Science the Endless Frontier: A Report to the President by Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development” (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, July 1945),
  14. Nick Wadhams, “Biden Putting Tech, Not Troops, at Core of U.S.-China Policy,” Bloomberg, March 20, 2021,
  15. Ferry Biedermann, “Israel’s High-Tech Diplomacy in Africa,” CNBC, June 6, 2017,
  16. Shawn He, “Updating Government: Estonia’s Mastery of Digital Statecraft,” New Atlanticist, April 16, 2018,; Tomas Jermalavicius, “Small State Power in the Digital Era: Insights from the Estonian Experience,” American Academy in
  17. Scott Kennedy, “Made in China 2025,” CSIS, June 1, 2015,; U.S. Department of State, “Military-Civil Fusion and the People’s Republic of China,”
  18. Peter Chase and Justus Windwehr, “The EU, Export Controls, and Minding the National Security Gap,” German Marshall Fund of the United; Christopher Ford, “Export Controls and National Security Strategy in the 21st Century,” Arms Control and International Security Papers 1, no. 16 (August 19, 2020),
  19. Christopher Ford, “The Civil Nuclear Sector, Nonproliferation, and Great Power Competition: Rebuilding Global Leadership,” remarks to the Nuclear Energy Institute Board of Directors, September 16, 2020,
  20. Christopher Ford, “International Security in Cyberspace: New Models for Reducing Risk,” Arms Control and International Security Papers 1, no. 20 (October 20, 2020),; Chris Painter, “Diplomacy in Cyberspace,” Foreign Service Journal, June 2018,
  21. Helen Warrell, “U.S. Presses Boris Johnson with New Dossier on Huawei Security Risks,” Financial Times, January 13, 2020,; Dan Sabbagh, “Using Huawei in UK 5G networks Would Be ‘Madness’, US says,” Guardian, January 13, 2020,; Cecelia Kang and David E. Sanger, “Huawei Is a Target as Trump Moves to Ban Foreign Telecom Gear,” New York Times, May 15, 2019,; Christopher Ford, “Huawei and its Siblings, the Chinese Tech Giants: National Security and Foreign Policy Implications,” remarks to the Multilateral Action on Sensitive Technology (MAST) Plenary Meeting in Washington, D.C., September 11, 2019,
  22. Lisa Friedman, “With John Kerry Pick, Biden Selects a ‘Climate Envoy’ With Stature,” New York Times, November 23, 2020,; Natalie Kitroeff, Maria Abi-Habbib, Zolan Kanno-Youngs, and Jim Tankersley, “U.S. to Send Millions of Vaccine Doses to Mexico and Canada,” New York Times, March 18, 2021,
  23. Angus King et al., “Final Report,” Cyberspace Solarium Commission, March 2020, 3, 5, and 47–48,; Eric Schmidt et al., “Second Quarter Recommendations,” National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence, Quarterly Series, no. 2, July 22, 2020, vii and 88,
  24. U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Pompeo Approves New Cyberspace Security and Emerging Technologies Bureau,” January 7, 2021,
  25. Kylie Atwood, Zachary Cohen, and Sean Lyngaas, “State Department Will Form New Cyber Bureau,” CNN, October 25, 2021,
  26. National Science Foundation, “International Activities at NSF,”
  27. NSF, “About the Office of International Science and Engineering (OISF),”
  28. U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Report to Accompany S.4049, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2021 (S. Rept. 116-232, 116th Congress, 2nd Sess.), June 24, 2020,
  29. NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană, speech to GoTech World, November 12, 2021,
  30. See, e.g., National Science Foundation, “The State of U.S. Science and Engineering 2022,”
  31. National Science Board, “The U.S. is a Keystone of Global Science & Engineering,” January 2022, 1,
  32. Cf. Ford, Clancy, and Blackburn, 8–9 and 26–33 (discussing PPP dynamics and organizational models).
  33. Compiled from World Bank, “GDP (current US$),” accessed November 5, 2021,; Heritage Foundation, “Taiwan Economy,” accessed November 5, 2021, These sources claim the following approximate GDP figures: Australia $1.3 trillion, Canada $1.6 trillion, European Union $15 trillion, Japan $4.9 trillion, Republic of Korea $1.6 trillion, Taiwan $1.3 trillion, United Kingdom $2.7 trillion, and United States $21 trillion.
  34. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Chinese authorities received 1.5 million patent applications in 2018, with those in Australia receiving 29,957, in Canada 36,161, in the European Union 174,397, in Japan 313,567, in the Republic of Korea 209,992, and in the United States receiving 597,141. WIPO, “World Intellectual Property Indicators 2019: Patents” (undated), There were also reportedly 72,238 patent filings in Taiwan. “Annual number of patent grants in Taiwan from 2010 to 2020,”, September 27, 2021, Together, these non-PRC figures come to 1.4 million.
National Approaches February 2022: Special Issue