Time for a Nato for tech

The democratic world can triumph in tech – if it works together.

Believe the hype – even if you shouldn’t believe all the research. China is a global top dog in tech, leading in 37 of 44 technology segments – at least according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Aspi). But China is not quite as dominant as that statistic suggests. Aspi bases its findings on the number of research papers published, which includes quasi-propaganda released purely to gain government incentives. Yet even accounting for rogue papers, China is undoubtedly up there with the US. It might even be ahead.

That the great emulator has become the almighty innovator is a trend well documented. Yet the US has been slow to respond to its rival’s progress. Finally recognizing China’s huge technological might, the US House of Representatives has formed the bipartisan Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The committee focuses on manufacturing capability, trade policy and intellectual property rights protection – as well as human talent. It aims to increase investments in R&D and attract the world’s most able scientists and engineers to American shores.

The House committee’s work is necessary, but it is insufficient. At some point soon the US must realize that it is unable to cling to a global edge in tech while working alone. It is time for a North Atlantic Technology Organization. A new Nato, you might call it.

There are huge prizes on offer. I am on record as saying that my native India is an invaluable potential ally in healthtech – particular in the worldwide fight against cancer. It has the talent. And it is largely unimpeded by the need to protect industry profits. “Because India has no vested interests to protect and has a culture of giving and sharing, it can do what the West only dreams about,” says Gary Reedy, the former chief executive of the American Cancer Society.

Yet international tech alliances are not fantasy, but reality. The European Council for Nuclear Research (Cern) was founded in 1954 by 12 European countries, including France, the UK, Italy and West Germany. The European G7 nations were concerned that progress in nuclear technology was overly reliant on facilities available only in the US and Soviet Union – where the focus was on the development of weapons, not energy.

Cern proved it is possible to resolve many of the diplomatic and economic challenges of multilateral organizations. It created a funding model and governance structure that gave a voice and role to each member state, whether it was a smaller player like Greece, or a major power like France. It achieved most of its goals. Indeed, its scientific influence reached beyond subatomic physics: it is credited with world-changing innovations such as the World Wide Web, the touchscreen and cancer-detection imaging. By contrast, techno-nationalism is an unwise play. Witness the refusal of China to participate in a global standard for the development of Covid vaccines. The result was the woefully underpowered Sinotec jab, which led to avoidable deaths and morbidity in China.

In a recent paper, professors Leonard Lynn of Case Western Reserve University and Hal Salzman of Rutgers University propose the development of new Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) Global Commons. By enhancing open access to global talent and following the democratic governance principles pioneered by Cern, new international collaborations on technology are possible. The potential rewards from a new Nato for tech are boundless. A partnership between the US and India is realistic. If the world can resist the false allure of techno-nationalism, early successes on the global challenges of climate change, cancer, cybersecurity and poverty could heave into view.

Vivek Wadhwa is author of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent.