WASHINGTON -- The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has a long list of areas where it is working to spur research and development and commercial investment, ranging from health IT and big data to robotics and nanotechnology, but perhaps none is more ambitious than what the office calls "grand challenges."
"Part of our problem is in China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In the United States, Britney Spears is Britney Spears."
Inspired by John F. Kennedy's call to land an astronaut to the moon, the OSTP is challenging industry members and government agencies, academics and philanthropic organizations to dream big and imagine ways to harness technology to solve some of the country's most pressing problems.
"We are pitchable," Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy at the OSTP, said in remarks here at the Reboot America Summit, a conference focused on startups and policy challenges in the nation's capital.
Kalil cited Google's project to develop driverless cars, noting that the company built on work conducted under a program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a group that was instrumental in the early development of the Internet.
Similarly, he called attention to the work that IBM has been doing in artificial intelligence, creating supercomputers that have defeated chess great Garry Kasparov and Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings, splashy exhibits designed in part as proof-of-concept for technology that ultimately could be applied to real-world challenges like health care or energy.
Other examples Kalil cited included PayPal cofounder Elon Musk's latest venture, the aerospace company SpaceX, and the sequencing of the human genome, once a forbidding challenge that involved inordinate time and expense, but that has become far simpler thanks to the abundance of low-cost computing power.
"The cost of genome sequencing has been falling by a factor of 12," Kalil said, adding that that pace was "kicking Moore's law's ass."
The administration's work promoting technology to address so-called grand challenges builds on previous outreach efforts to court the business and startup communities and build collaborative partnerships with the private sector.
White Urges Tech Innovation
Last January, the White House convened business and philanthropic leaders to unveil the Startup America Partnership, a campaign to help incubate and launch innovative startup businesses that has drawn on funding commitments from some of the biggest names in tech, including Facebook, HP and Intel. Startup America is chaired by AOL co-founder Steve Case.
The administration also won a legislative victory this year with the passage of the JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, intended to ease the path for startups to secure capital through mechanisms such as crowdfunding.
A bipartisan group of senators has also brought forward a measure to relax immigration restrictions for highly skilled workers, provide a capital gains exemption for startups and other provisions to create a more favorable climate to help early-stage businesses to get off the ground and thrive.
One of the backers of the Startup 2.0 Act, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), was also on hand at Friday's conference. Warner pointed out that major legislative initiatives, immigration reform among them, will be on hold as lawmakers grapple with a plan for deficit reduction, particularly in the short term as they seek to avert the so-called fiscal cliff -- a set of potentially damaging tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect in January if Congress fails to act.
But following the election, with all its heated rhetoric, Warner is hopeful that the tone in Washington will become less strident -- on both sides -- paving the way for bipartisan action on some of the bigger issues. Immigration might top that list, given the decisive role that Latino voters played in the election, voting overwhelmingly Democratic.
"I am actually more optimistic," Warner said. "I think the wind behind comprehensive immigration reform is much stronger now after the election."
For the OSTP's work on grand challenges, Kalil urged businesses to think big, challenging them to pursue ideas that capture the national imagination.
"It has to be ambitious, yet achievable. So if I said my grand challenge was immortality and the end of scarcity, that certainly does well on the ambition criteria, not so well on the achievable category," he said.
"It has to be compelling, and it has to capture the public imagination. So if I said my grand challenge is the efficient programming of many-core processors, that's an important technical goal, but it's not something that's going to get people jazzed in the same way that the moonshot did," Kalil said.
His office is also seeking to elevate the cultural status of successful entrepreneurs, including outreach to Hollywood to encourage filmmakers and others in the entertainment industry to turn their lenses on the scientists and inventors who are developing transformative technologies and businesses.
"One of the things that people have observed, including [Segway inventor] Dean Kamen, is you get what you celebrate," Kalil said. "And [New York Times columnist and author] Tom Friedman noted that part of our problem is in China, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In the United States, Britney Spears is Britney Spears."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.