5 tech battles facing Trump

The tech industry could face challenges from Trump on immigration reform, R&D support, climate change, China relations and auto emissions

trump thoughful
Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

President Donald Trump may face protests from scientists and technologists like no other president before him.

It's not just the tech industry that may battle Trump. New forces are arising, some grassroots, such as Neveragain.tech and a planned massive "March for Science," in Washington and elsewhere. The tech industry protest over the seven-country immigration ban is just a preview.

Major battles also loom over other issues with consequences for tech, including climate change, air quality, support for federal research and trade policy.

Here's a look at some of the tech-related issues that Trump faces.

1. California's emissions and clean energy tech

The California economy is the sixth largest in the world and recently surpassed that of France. This gives California tremendous economic clout, and what action it takes on clean energy has national impact not only on public policies, but the tech industry as well.

California has a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency waiver that allows it to set stricter emissions standards for vehicles. This waiver is widely opposed by business groups, which want a single, weaker national standard. Trump's EPA nominee, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, will not commit to keeping California's waiver.

California believes that tougher emissions and clean energy regulations are policies that help to develop its clean energy industry.

California Senate President Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) said that if Pruitt is confirmed and decides "to endanger our innovative economy, jobs, and most importantly, the air 40 million people breathe, he will be met with full resistance up and down the state."

Meanwhile, supporters of a California secession movement have begun collecting signatures to start the process of separating from the union. If Trump wants to push California to vote for independence, pulling the state's emissions waiver is one of the first things he should do.

2. Federal support for science research

Federal investment in research and development is declining despite the best advice of U.S. scientists. The pullback started before Trump took office, but the concern is that a Republican-controlled Congress and administration may hasten it.

In 2011, the Task Force on American Innovation, a broad industry and academic group, held a congressional forum called "Deconstructing the iPad" to show that the majority of iPad components, its integrated circuits, touch screen, sensors, GPS, not to mention the internet, were the fruits of federal government-supported research. While these observations had no impact on U.S. lawmakers, Chinese leaders understood the importance of supporting basic science R&D.

China is on pace to surpass the U.S. in R&D spending as early as 2020. China's goal is to challenge U.S. technological dominance and win global market share. In December, the task force on innovation sent Trump a letter saying, "we cannot afford to reduce our efforts while other countries threaten our leadership by funding the basic scientific research that is vital to tomorrow's innovation."

Trump likes to "win," and he could emerge as an advocate for federal R&D. The administration's first federal budget, due next month, will tell where he stands.

3. China becomes tech's black swan

About 84% of the world's electronics are made in Asia, and about 85% of those goods are made in China, according to research firm IDC. This means that any break in relations between the U.S. and China could have enormous implications for the technology industry. But Trump is proving himself to be a blunt-edge leader. In his first week as president, he managed to drum up a crisis with Mexico and enrage the tech industry, in particular, over his immigration ban.

Now consider what may happen in the South China Sea over China's artificial islands.

Rex Tillerson, Trump's nominee for secretary of state, told a Senate confirmation committee: "We're going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed." That wasn't an outlier position. Sean Spicer, Trump's press secretary, followed up with a similar statement.

It's unclear how Trump will handle China, and there is worry that the president will raise costs with tariffs and destabilize supply chains with aggressive action. If the Trump administration uses force to deny China "access to those islands," IT may be facing a Black Swan, a low-probability, high-impact event for which there is no reasonable way to prepare. 

4. Climate change

There is a global race to develop clean energy technology. Trump's emphasis has been on fossil fuels, despite the fact that employment in the U.S. solar energy industry grew 25 percent last year to 374,000 workers.

Clean energy technology permeates everything that Silicon Valley companies work on. Internet of things technologies, in particular, hold the promise to improve energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and manufacturing systems. Coal mining is declining in importance as an employer. It is a capital-intensive industry being overtaken by automation. But there is a big future in the energy storage industry, something that ought to be apparent at the Tesla Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada, where Tesla plans to build batteries that store power generated from solar panels on houses and commercial buildings.

The U.S. Department of Energy is one of the federal agencies supporting research in clean energy, in part, by making time available on its supercomputers. There is concern that Trump's climate change denial statements will lead to cuts in DOE support for alternative energy technology development.

If the Trump administration defunds climate change research, tries to silence government scientists, cripples NASA's earth science efforts, cuts DOE funding related to climate -- all things his critics fears -- he will face continuous and ongoing fights, and likely major protests.

5. Trump to fight tech on H-1B

In 1998, President Bill Clinton's administration wasn't completely buying the tech industry's insistence that the U.S. suffered from a shortage of highly skilled workers.

The Clinton administration, which was considering backing legislation to raise the H-1B cap, discussed whether to challenge the tech industry on its claims. In a White House memo, a Clinton staff member wrote it should seek legislation that "calls industry's bluff re: their shortage of really highly skilled and desirable workers."

The Clinton administration pitched a rule requiring companies to first try to hire a U.S. worker if the position paid less than $75,000 (With inflation that salary would be about $110,000 today).

But Clinton dropped the idea, giving the tech industry much of what it wanted and did nothing to impede the visa's use in displacing U.S. workers.

Trump is expected to do what Clinton did not, and appears ready to challenge the tech industry.

Trump is leaning in the direction of supporting an H-1B visa that would favor foreign workers who have earned advanced degrees from a U.S. school, have a high-paying job offer and the needed skills. If these students are indeed among the best and brightest, the Trump administration will argue higher wages shouldn't be a problem for the tech industry.

Computerworld's IT Salary Survey 2017 results
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