Episode 28: Finding Collective Advantage in Shared Knowledge

The CHIPS and Science Act aims to secure American competitiveness and innovation by investing $280 billion in domestic semiconductor manufacturing, scientific innovation, and regional development. But if past government investments in science and technology are any guide, this will affect American life in unexpected and profound ways—well beyond manufacturing and scientific laboratories.

On this episode, Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, talks to host Lisa Margonelli about the CHIPS and Science Act in the context of previous American security investments. Investments in food security and agriculture in the 1860s and nuclear security in the 1940s and ’50s created shared knowledge that benefitted all Americans. Early agricultural programs, for example, turned farmers into innovators, resulting in an agricultural sector that can feed many people with very little labor. In similar ways, today’s quest for digital security could make the country more secure, while also changing how individuals live and work with information.

SpotifyApple PodcastsStitcherGoogle PodcastsOvercast



Lisa Margonelli: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and Arizona State University. In 2022, Congress passed an extraordinarily bipartisan initiative called the CHIPS and Science Act. The act is meant to make the US a leader in industries of the future. It has $52 billion for semiconductor chip development, $200 billion for science, and $10 billion for regional hubs. It’s a lot of money. In today’s dollars, it’s twice the cost of the Manhattan Project for the chips element alone. How could these investments transform American life?

I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues. On this episode, we’re talking to Dr. Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University about previous government initiatives around science and security, and what they suggest about the chips initiative and our possible future. Michael, welcome.

Michael Crow: Hey, Lisa. Thank you. Glad to be here.

Lisa Margonelli: There’s a lot of talk about how CHIPS and Science is unprecedented, but how does it fit into the history of government investments in science and security?

Crow: You know, what’s funny—and a lot of Americans I don’t think remember this or have thought about it—but the American government from its design and its outset has always been scientifically driven. President Jefferson in 1804 formed the Corps of Discovery after the purchase of the Louisiana property from France, and then had Lewis and Clark, then as the captains of the Corps of Discovery, scientifically explore from the Mississippi River in St. Louis all the way to the coast of Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River—an unbelievable scientific exploration. Then many times in the history of the United States, with the Coastal and Geodetic Survey and all kinds of other things along the way, the country just became very, very science driven; very, very knowledge core driven.

Three times prior to the CHIPS and Science Act, the US government stepped up and decided to ensure national security around something that they felt was absolutely essential. The first was our moves in the nineteenth century, in the 1860s, with both the establishment of the Department of Agriculture and the land-grant universities, to make certain that food security would always be maintained in the United States. And now we’ve become the most agriculturally abundant, most agriculturally creative, most scientifically driven, food-secure place that’s ever existed. That was sort of case number one.

Case number two was following the Manhattan Project during World War II, nuclear security became a thing, where we had developed this scientific thing: atomic fission. We had done this during World War II; we’d built all of these labs, and now we knew we had this tiger by the tail that would have both civilian applications and weapons applications—which we needed to basically be the best at, forever, so that we could maintain the advantage that we’d gained. And so the Atomic Energy Commission was formed in 1946, later the ERDA, the Energy Research and Development Administration, in the early 1970s. And this really became a core thing.

A third thing kind of on the side, was that we decided after the launch of Sputnik in October of 1957, that we were going to be the masters of space technology. President Kennedy announced going to the moon. NASA was created from the previous agency that had existed since World War I. All kinds of things happened in that space. And in those three areas, food, nuclear, and space, the United States is able to protect all of its interests and to advance its knowledge-seeking requirements in those spaces to our advantage. And finally, now, just recently with the CHIPS and Science Act, we’ve decided that all things digital are so important to the future of the country, like food in the 1860s, that all things digital are so essential that we have to maintain technological—not superiority, but constant technological innovation, constant manufacturing capability, constant ability to be the best at all things digital. So the CHIPS and Science Act is like the agricultural project, the nuclear project, and the space project. They’re decisions by the country to maintain national security around a certain area of technology.

Margonelli: That’s really interesting. And I think what’s in the story of twentieth-century science—we’re pretty familiar with the Manhattan Project and the space program, but we’re a little bit less familiar with what happened in the 1860s. So I want to kind of dive down into that. There was the formation of the agriculture department, and there was also the formation of the land-grant universities. And these things had huge and long-lasting, transformative effects. So let’s talk a little bit about that.

Crow: So imagine it’s 1860. The country’s deeply divided. There’s three people running for president. A person is elected president with around 40% of the vote—that would be Abraham Lincoln. Several states secede from the union; the country’s in crisis. There’s about 30 million people living in the United States at the time, but it’s expanding wildly and quickly, particularly into the West. Food security becomes a question. And then also the notion of inequitable social outcomes becomes a question, as well as our agricultural productivity.

So with Congress realigned, with fewer states present in Congress, two things could be created. One was a national initiative in agriculture, agricultural science, agricultural trade oversight, agricultural ideas and thinking, and so forth: agricultural innovation. So that’s the Department of Agriculture. And then along the way, a guy named Justin Morrill, who was a congressman from Vermont at the time, had thought for some time that each state should sell some of the land given to the states by the federal government to build a college for agricultural and mechanical arts, open to the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics (which was 90% of the population at the time).

And so that got passed in July of 1862. The states set up land-grant schools like the University of California, the University of Illinois, Michigan State, Purdue, Cornell, MIT. In each of those states and many others—Iowa State, where I went to undergraduate school, was one of those schools—those universities then became, and the history shows this, unbelievable, transformative elements on two dimensions relative to the United States. First, we moved into unbelievable agricultural security and agricultural productivity, and never had the food insecurity that then existed in Europe, existed in Asia, has existed in other places around the world. And then food has just been taken for granted in the United States because it’s been such a perfect area of national security. In addition to that, the innovation created out of these schools then became the driving force for the post-Civil War industrial success of the United States. A lot of the literature has looked at the role of the land-grants.

It’s really quite remarkable. Those land grants, several of them became among the first research universities at scale. The United States accelerated its economic evolution, its social evolution, all these things were driven by basically stabilization of agriculture, movement of agriculture into a powerful economic driver. And then all the engineering solutions and special training and special people that came out of these schools were really, really powerful to the late-nineteenth-century transformation of the American economy.

Margonelli: That’s really interesting because reading what you had written about this sort of sent me back to Hunter Dupree’s book on the history of science and the federal government. And two things came out of that that struck me. One thing is that that transformation of the US science and knowledge enterprise was not really anticipated when they started. When the agriculture department started, it was run by a milkman, I think, and it didn’t know how to generate knowledge. It didn’t know how to solve problems. The Texas fever among cattle got completely out of hand. They had all the wrong ideas, and they gradually moved towards this very unified way of looking at problems and solving problems. And they also kind of transformed, on a very intimate level, farmers all across the country into scientists.

Crow: Yes, you’re absolutely right with that history. And so what we learned was that there was collective advantage to shared knowledge; there was collective advantage to shared training and shared experience. So over time, county extension offices were built in every one of the 3,000-plus counties in the United States. There were agricultural extension specialists that were helping individual farmers to accelerate their innovation. Hybrid corn varieties, ways to take care of pests and insects and weeds, all kinds of things, all enhancing productivity and also enhancing farmer success. So throughout European history and other parts of the world, farm collapse, agricultural collapse, economic collapse, bread riots, food riots, starvation, all these things were avoided here because we found a way to turn every individual farmer into a state-of-the-art agriculturalist. They could use their own ingenuity, but then they could draw from the collective knowledge of the country.

And yes, the Department of Agriculture started the same way that the Department of State [did]—I mean, I think the first patent agents and spies for the United States in terms of acquiring other technology reported directly to Hamilton and Jefferson when they were both cabinet members in the first administration. And so all these departments started out as small, unorganized things. But what happened was then the value of connection and collective knowledge and core scientific knowledge and core technological knowledge became really, really important to the success of the country.

Margonelli: Yeah, it’s really a fascinating transformation. I think one of the other things that came up, another parallel to CHIPS and Science, which has been discussed as industrial policy or the government getting out of its lane and getting involved in working directly with industry, was that when these agricultural acts started, they essentially transformed the role of government into working on the general welfare and generating knowledge. And we have something sort of similar happening here.

Crow: Well you know, what’s weird about that is it’s always funny to me when people talk about interference of the government. In fact, they’ve forgotten to go back and read the founding documents or the debates that occurred in the summer of 1787. So a lot of things got left on the cutting room floor in Philadelphia. The summer of 1787 left a lot of things that were proposed and not brought into the Constitution and then those things that were put into the Constitution. And the “general Welfare” remains in there. And people just forget, what does that mean? Well, how about food security? How about nuclear security? How about making certain that we never have to live without the essential digital devices that we’re going to need for every aspect of our life, our drinking water, our clean air, our cars, our electric vehicles, our computational tools, our learning assistants, our everything—all these things require these digital assets.

If you go back, it’s kind of weird, all these people who are against earmarks. So Samuel Morse’s funding for the first telegraph was an earmark from Congress. The wind tunnel that ultimately became the Jet Propulsion Laboratory was an earmark. So this notion that somehow you can’t have politics involved in building national capability, I don’t get that. And then there’s just this weird thing about, “Well, the government shouldn’t be involved in this.” Well, it’s not the government that’s involved in this. The government is facilitating collective knowledge. It’s facilitating base knowledge from which everyone can benefit.

If you look at somebody like George Washington Carver and what he was able to do in organizing knowledge about the peanut and the growth of the peanut, helping after Reconstruction Black farmers in the South to gain wealth and move forward with things. I mean, no individual farmer could do that by themselves.

Every individual farmer could be a better farmer because of the collective knowledge. And then from that, the industries that were developed from that base in the United States are unbelievable. It’s almost 20% of the economy, if you look at all things that agriculture touches just in that particular area.

Margonelli: I think this is a good time to move on to the second major initiative, which is after World War II, when you had the science and security initiative that had three elements to it. It created an infrastructure, it mobilized talent, and it had critical supply chains attached to it. Can you talk a little bit about how that transformed?

Crow: Well, what was interesting is that President Franklin Roosevelt, in the summer of 1940, was already speculating that the United States was highly likely to become involved in World War II. We had not been attacked yet by the Japanese, and in general, the public did not want to get into the war. But the president’s job is also to be prepared for the war. So he called on a person named Vannevar Bush, who at the time was the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. He had been the vice president for research at MIT in the 1930s, and he was one of the founders, after his PhD in electrical engineering in the 19-teens, of a company called Raytheon. So he was sort of a polymathic computer person, design electoral engineer. He could do all these things.

Margonelli: He was an amazing writer too.

Crow: Yeah, he was, absolutely. So he was called upon by President Roosevelt to create a thing that was ultimately called the Office of Scientific Research and Development, OSRD. And that became the mechanism by which President Roosevelt said, “I want you to bring all of the talent of American universities and American science and American technology to bear so that when we enter this war, we can have as few casualties as possible and we can end this war as quickly as possible,” which is a fantastic objective. And then when we entered the war in December of ’41, he accelerated unbelievably the scientific capabilities of the United States, particularly at the universities, building the Manhattan Project, launching other initiatives. So as you said, he brought talent to bear, he brought ideas to bear. He brought structures and mechanisms and, in a sense, transformed the way that we thought about science as a mechanism to protect democracy—and science as a mechanism to advance our economic and health success.

So much so that by the end of the war, just as President Roosevelt had passed away in April of ’45, just prior to that, Bush had been asked to put together a report on what do we do with all this science capability? And he wrote the famous report, Science, the Endless Frontier came out in July of 1945. President Truman accepted it. And from that point forward, you see that we got out of that the Atomic Energy Commission, we got the National Science Foundation, we got the expansion of the National Institutes of Health. The United States became the most significant scientific place in human history in terms of discoveries and technologies and moving things forward. And research universities began growing up all over the place, and the economy began doubling and doubling and doubling and doubling. And so what happened was we secured ourselves, in a sense, nuclear defense, which has proven to be complicated but positive. But we also designed out of that an unbelievable creative enterprise engaging the entire country.

Margonelli: It’s also interesting because it also kind of remodeled the relationship between government, research universities, and industry. It’s been called sort of the golden triangle or “a new kind of post-war science” that blurred the traditional distinctions. And that has proven to be an incredibly powerful engine of change in innovation through the development of GPS as it migrated out of military applications and into our cars and our phones—and right now, as we talk, smartphones, AI, jet engines, all of this sort of stuff moved from the military and security sphere out into our lives.

Crow: Well, what happened was that these research universities, which began being built in the 1870s with Johns Hopkins in the 1890s with Stanford and the University of Chicago, then a bunch of the public universities and the land-grant universities came in and became research universities. But even by 1939, they weren’t heavily funded by the government. They were doing their own research. They were funded by some foundations, there were some private entities. And then when they were asked to rise up to the national challenge to carry out a global conflict to advance the United States to victory on two massive war fronts at the same time, technology played an unbelievably important role in all of that, from proximity fuses, to other kinds of devices, to code breakers, to atomic weapons designers and torpedo developers—everything that you can imagine. That quickly brought the war to an end; the main combatants in the form of Germany and Japan transformed forever into functional democracies of significant economic outcome.

This was perceived at the moment as an unbelievable transformation in the role of universities, and it just has never stopped. So what began in ’41 and ’42 accelerated in the fifties, accelerated in the sixties, and has continued to accelerate, which has then fueled, as you said, the internet advanced technologies. It fueled us becoming the unbelievable developers of these advanced semiconductors and microchips, advanced materials research, advanced computation research, medical research. All these things got going, and now it is a core part of who we are—and in fact has been emulated by others, which is making others nervous now that other places are “catching up” or passing us or whatever, because they’ve decided to take on the same model, build research universities, fuel these research universities and become competitive with the unbelievably successful United States.

Margonelli: Yes, and that actually brings me to my next question, which is: you’ve called failing to secure digital security a strategic error. What do you mean there?

Crow: So what I mean by that: we developed the fundamental material sciences, the fundamental engineering, the fundamental designs, the breakthroughs in the first semiconductors, the breakthroughs in what was the first transistor, all the things that came—the transistor was ’47, and in the fifties and in the sixties, these semiconductor materials were being built. We then built the most advanced chips, microchips, built the most advanced systems. Then because of costs of manufacturing being potentially lower in other parts of the world, manufacturing got offshored, development got offshored—so much so that by the time we get to the 2020s, the late teens and the 2020s, we find ourselves with a small manufacturing base, a significant research base, and our supply chain interruptible. So the strategic error was to not see these as a national asset. It’s only in the way that we see nuclear, the way that we see food, both of which are inseparable from our existence. In this case, we thought that this was only a commercial thing. It’s not only a commercial thing. These chips have become as essential as water to our success going forward.

Margonelli: That’s interesting too, because food, it has national implications, but it also has sort of personal implications, as we’re seeing with this talk of taking TikTok off of our phones and things like that.

Crow: Well, the technological applications using these technologies are slightly ahead of our social thinking right now and our ability to understand these things. So we’ve got all kinds of technology manifestations that are causing social disruption and social upset, and we have potential for security threats, we have potential for cultural threats. We’ve got all these things that are going on. All those things are transitory and will be addressed. What’s not transitory is the fact that our species is now enabled by these microchips, which are basically enhancing every single individual. All of us carry, or most of us carry, an iPhone or something like an iPhone, or an Android phone or something like this. Well, that’s a supercomputer attached to your body, connected to all the other supercomputers that are out there. And with ChatGPT and other things coming along, those will become, over time, powerful assistants to every person, every organization.

And so what’s going to happen here is that our species, for the first time, has now created a foundational tool—a computational device in the form of a semiconductor, which is an electronic system—which is then reducible because of advanced science to up to, I mean, I think the most advanced chip that IBM has has 50 billion transistors on a single microchip. My phone has, I think, only 12 billion transistors on the microchip. So everything will change. Medicine will change, business will change, computation will change, learning will change. Everything will continue to evolve. And so, like food and like nuclear, digital will be that kind of thing. And we’ve just come to that realization, and the CHIPS and Science Act is that.

Margonelli: Yeah. It’s so interesting when you’ve really put it in a larger context of how far this may take us and how it may change and transforms our lives and our fundamental relationships. I think the question here is, what can we learn from the past about how CHIPS and Science can have the same transformative potential?

Crow: Well, one thing we need to learn from what we learned in agriculture is that you’ve got to work at the level of the people. You’ve got to think sociologically about the outcome of these kinds of technologies. You’ve got to do technology assessment. You’ve got to understand what these technologies might do. You’ve got to think about how to educate the people to then fully take advantage of the technology and become, as we have in agriculture—basically spurring development across the entire economy, not just in concentrated corporations. That will then get the most fueling of all of “Schumpeter’s forces of creative destruction,” the terms that he used, Schumpeter being the Austrian economist who thought about what is innovation? How do you drive innovation? So innovation can’t be just these big chip manufacturers or the big tool manufacturers only. They have to be then spurred by whole new ways of thinking about chips and using chips and using technology.

So that’s a lesson from the past. Another lesson from the past is to basically not take our foot off the gas. This can’t be on again, off again, on again, off again. It has to be continuous innovation, continuous forward movement.

The other thing is that competition is real. We can’t stop competition from other parts of the world. We can only win. And so if you try to stop something, you don’t win. If you try to block something, you will lose. And so you need to understand global competition.

And then I think the other thing that we need to think about in terms of a lesson from the past coming out of nuclear is that we were clueless as to all of the ultimate implications of nuclear weapons technologies, certainly. And so now we have unmitigated nuclear proliferation, which hasn’t been thought through, hasn’t been managed. And so how do we manage the negative outcomes of some of these technologies more carefully? That’s certainly a lesson from the past.

And I think another lesson from the past is that sometimes we don’t think about what it all means. So for instance, through agricultural technology development, we eliminated the agricultural workforce. OK, well, that happened kind of gradually, and we adjusted, but we had a deep cultural impact on the country because much of the country was agriculturally based. And so these digital technologies will also have huge workforce implications, and we should think about them in front of these changes as opposed to during or after these changes. And so those are lessons from the past.

Margonelli: Yeah, recalling what happened with the agricultural act of transforming people’s ability to be scientists in their own lives and have that contribute to their own satisfaction and ability to feed themselves and their families has some interesting parallels for this.

Crow: Yes. And so one parallel is—it certainly is the case. In fact, on a project that I’m working on as a part of the National Advisory Committee on Innovation, which I’m a member of, I’ve been arguing that we need to make certain that we can have, down to the level of communities, incubators for the uses of chips in ideas that teenagers and others are coming up with. And how do you help people to build new kinds of chips and new kinds of activities and so forth. You got to look at these things as not just the realm of the massive global corporation, but the realm of any tinkerer, any innovator. If you read [Walter] Isaacson’s book, The Innovators, it’s a fabulous story about how some of these innovations in digital technologies emerged. They were not the product of just the big corporations. They were the product of all kinds of people and the big corporations.

And so what we need is both and, then more. So how do you facilitate all of that? And also, how do we get more even economic benefit across the country from these kinds of technologies? What could be developed using these kinds of technologies in new applications to help manage, I don’t know, the Mississippi River, or grow rice better in the delta regions of Arkansas and Louisiana along the Mississippi River and Tennessee? How do we do all those things? We need as much of this to be, like the agriculture department, as localized as possible.

Margonelli: That brings up two other interesting parallels to the agricultural act. One was the realization that manufacturing this knowledge could help raise everybody’s boat. And that is kind of called in question a little bit with CHIPS and Science: are we going to try to raise the knowledge only in the US and raise everybody’s boat in the US, or are we still a global knowledge producer? And that seems like something that’s going to have to be negotiated.

Crow: Well, I mean, yes, it’s complicated because some of these technologies can be particularly handy in weapons systems. And so what one wants to think about is how do we float all boats to drive up all economic activity? I’m going to round up the global economy, a hundred trillion dollars. Well, there’s no reason that it couldn’t be a thousand trillion dollars, be environmentally clean, drive up per capita income across the entire planet, drive us into all kinds of new things. Well, we’re not going to do that if we hold onto these digital technologies in a way that everyone doesn’t benefit. We just have to find a way to make certain that we reduce the probability of kinetic combat. There may be ways where these technologies can be very helpful to us in that also. We just have to think it through. We’re not thinking it through enough.

Right now we are heavily concerned about the rise of new major competition in China, new major competition in other parts of the world. I’m all for competition. Competition makes you perform better, harder, cheaper. There’s all kinds of ways that you solve things. We just have to make sure that what we get out of this is global evolution and fair competition.

Margonelli: We are at a very interesting point in history because we are at the beginning of this sort of arc of another 80 years. As you mentioned, we’ve had 80 years of transformation from the initial sort of nuclear security work. And we’ve had 150 years of evolution from the agricultural work. And as we start down that path, history shows us that we don’t actually know where we’re going, but we have to actually keep our eyes on what things are important as we go forward.

Crow: Well, what’s interesting, no one in 1940 would’ve predicted where we are now with either nuclear weapons, nuclear power, the emergence of fusion power, the Perseverance rover on the surface of Mars being nuclear powered, all these things that are happening—no one would’ve thought about any of that. We will have nuclear-powered spaceships, we’ll have all these things going on. All these things that are happening, no one would’ve predicted any of that. And then in agriculture, no one would’ve predicted that only 2% of the American population would be involved in production agriculture, feeding 340 million people in the United States and probably another 300 million people around the world, something like that, all from 2% of the American population. No one would’ve predicted that. No one would’ve thought about sustainable agriculture or whole new ways to build plant-based meats and all these other kinds of things that are going on.Not a single person could have thought of that.

And here we are now in 2023, thinking about what will happen between now and 2100 when in fact these technologies, these digitally based technologies will be more impactful than either nuclear or food. No one can predict where it’s all going, which means then, therefore, that we need more technology assessment capabilities, more predictive analytics, more deeper understanding of what these things might do, and just more thoughtfulness. Not to predict, because we’ll never get the predictions correct, but to understand and to adjust as we go along the way.

Margonelli: You have been really active in CHIPS and Science in Arizona, and as you think forward for how Arizona’s life, and not just the whole state, but the individual life could potentially be transformed, what are the things that you hope to steer towards and what are the things that you worry about?

Crow: One of the things I think that will happen for certain is that Arizona already is a huge manufacturing center for semiconductors and will become even more than that, that it’ll become the most concentrated semiconductor manufacturing place on the planet. And then all of the supply chain related to that, which then also connects to the battery companies that are here and the electric vehicle companies that are expanding here. So empowerment of all kinds of renewable energy systems, renewable tools, renewable devices, all those kinds of things. All of that will be advanced here. And then I think, beyond that, then what happens in all of that is, how does one find a way in Arizona to become the place where the best renewable energy-based, best sustainability-based economy can be built using every electronic computational tool imaginable?

So you can better manage water with more data, more data, more data, more data, more data.You can better manage all complex systems, like adjustments to all of the complexities of global management, with more computational outcomes. We don’t have the computational capabilities to manage the complex interfaces that we have with the environment. So if we want to better manage our relationship with the environment, we need more intensive tools to do that, and we need companies building those tools. And so I’m hopeful that Arizona will be a place where a lot of those things grow.

Now, the downside here is there’s some chance of uneven economic opportunity for the population because of educational differences. And we’re working very heavily to address that at ASU by giving pathways to everyone to have a chance to participate. There are unresolved issues of the waste streams from these advanced digital technologies, which have to be very seriously thought about because the chemicals are particularly hazardous in many cases.

And then I’d say that there is a huge worker transformation that we have to worry about. So as these computational tools become—you know, the reason that autonomous vehicles don’t work as well as we would like them to work is that we don’t have computational tools that are good enough. You get a computational tool that’s 20 times better than a chip today, and you can now calculate almost anything, any error function. And then all of a sudden half the drivers don’t have jobs, half the servers don’t have jobs in restaurants, the grocery stores, as you’ve already seen if you’ve been to one lately. There’s nobody that works there. You just check out yourself. And so what that means then is that I think the downside that we have to think about is how do we build an economy that is robust for everyone with these technological breakthroughs driven by these digital technologies? And this happened in agriculture; it’s going to be more complicated with digital. And so we’re going to have to really, really worry about this significantly.

Margonelli: To learn more about previous science initiatives mentioned in this conversation, visit the podcast page at issues.org. You can email us at [email protected] with any comments or suggestions. And you can subscribe to The Ongoing Transformation wherever you get your podcast. Thanks to our podcast producer, Kimberly Quach, and audio engineer, Shannon Lynch. I’m Lisa Margonelli, editor-in-chief of Issues in Science and Technology. Thank you for joining us!