At Siegel, we recognize that the development and deployment of technology is shaped by public policy – either through direct action such as regulation, public investments, or tax policy; or through lack of action on issues such as antitrust enforcement or pursuing violators of labor standards.
For too long, the dominant view of technology development and deployment has been like libertarian or laissez faire economics on steroids. It is argued that what works best for private companies will work best for the economy and society. Under this paradigm, market forces will spark innovation – creating new products and services at lower costs – while simultaneously disciplining companies for bad behavior. The only role for collective action through government is to enforce contracts. Those that offer the best, most innovative services at the lowest cost will thrive, and competition will drive out the rest.
Even those that may be inclined to see a role for collective action through government often paint a picture of two distinct sectors: a private sector driving innovation and a public sector aiming to curb the worst abuses. In essence, this approach is to wait for the system to break-down, and then piecemeal patch the problem areas.
These stylized versions of the economy generally, and the innovation economy more specifically, have never been true. Various government policies from direct investment in research, to procurement, to patent protections, to regulatory policy and beyond have always shaped the path of technology. Collective efforts to develop open-source software continues to power the internet and digital technologies. Path dependence and network externalities drive the growth of mega tech platforms as much (or more so) as their ability to drive innovation internally.
Both the libertarian and the “two-sector” approach need to be rejected, and we need to collectively think more broadly and boldly about how we as a society can shape our technological future. We believe that an electorate and their elected officials need to be better equipped than they are today to confront today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.
This is why we at Siegel have made a significant commitment to organizations that are thinking about the impact of technology on society and how public policy can better shape our future. Siegel recently announced $3.25m in grant awards to 10 institutions to conduct research, develop policy options, and educate policymakers on a wide range of technology policy issues. For 2023-24, we are expecting to commit at least an additional $3.25m towards this initiative, bringing our 3 year commitment to at least $6.5 million.
We believe that policy should be developed using a sound evidence base. Which is why we are investing in institutions that conduct ground-breaking research into issues such as misinformation on social media platforms (NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics), applied belief dynamics (Santa Fe Institute), technology and workers (MIT) or IT policy (The Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton). But we also recognize that this research and the underlying technology needs to be presented to the public, to policymakers, and other stakeholders in different ways. Which is why we support those organizations not just to do the research, but also to engage with stakeholders outside an academic research community. We fund organizations that will help translate research for decision makers and apply learnings to help develop policy options. For example, we are funding work to help translate academic work and engage with broader audiences (UNC’s Center for Information Technology, and Public Life, Aspen Digital, Data & Society) including policymakers (Center for American Progress, Washington Center for Equitable Growth).
We believe that by bringing together research and policymaking communities, we can help create the conditions for more informed policies. Towards this end, we have also created a cohort of 14 Siegel Research Fellows – consisting of early-career researchers from these institutions and others – to help make those connections more concrete.
This work builds off of Siegel’s $5.5m, 3-year (2021-23) initiative to help fund the Public Interest Technology movement, which has helped universities define career pathways for technologists interested in serving the public in different ways, and which has helped boost the capacity of policymakers and administrators to use technology in the delivery of vital services.
In the future, you can expect Siegel to continue to engage with our grantees and others to continue to grapple with salient research questions and policy options. We encourage you to:
This article was written by John Irons, Senior Vice President and Head of Research at Siegel Family Endowment.