China Technology & Innovation United States and Canada
Strategic Insights Memo May 13, 2024

Developing an actionable framework to guide promotion and protection policies for emerging technologies

By Hanna Dohmen

TO: Policymakers and technology policy strategists

FROM: Hanna Dohmen

DATE: May 13, 2024

SUBJECT: Developing an actionable framework to guide policies that protect and promote US leadership in emerging technologies

In February 2024, the Atlantic Council Global China Hub (AC GCH) and the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) convened experts and policymakers in a private workshop to test an actionable framework designed to guide policymakers in identifying emerging technology priorities. Using SCSP’s Strategic Evaluation Framework, participants discussed five technology case studies (commercial drones, electric vehicles, genomic sequencers, Internet of Things, and mobile applications) based on technological, rival, and domestic factors. This memo summarizes insights gathered during the workshop.

Strategic context

The ongoing technology competition with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is at the forefront of policy debates in the United States and globally. It is widely understood in policy circles that technology competition involves both protecting US leadership and promoting US innovation in emerging technologies. Protecting US technological strengths entails limiting or cutting off adversaries’ access to, and slowing adversaries’ progress in, certain technologies that could undermine or threaten US national security and technological as well as economic competitiveness through tools like inbound and outbound investment screening, export controls, and sanctions. Promoting US innovation entails incentivizing and advancing US technological progress by fostering research and innovation through tools such as federal research and development (R&D) funding, patents, and grants.

While the protect and promote policy levers are well understood, there is less consensus on how those policy tools should be used to address risks posed by rapidly evolving and emerging technologies. Amid this policy debate, there is a clear gap in the decision-making process: a strategic framework to guide decisions on prioritizing emerging technologies using promotion and protection policies.

The Joe Biden administration has already taken significant policy actions to address a number of technologies, including semiconductors and artificial intelligence (AI). However, the policy debate in Washington continues to expand beyond the “force multiplier” technologies—computing-related technologies, biotechnologies, and clean-energy technologies—identified by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in September 2022. For example, in late February the Biden administration announced its first Information and Communications Technology and Services (ICTS) investigation into the cybersecurity and data security risks posed by connected vehicles. Additionally, President Biden signed a law in April 2024 that would force ByteDance—the beneficial owner of TikTok—to either sell TikTok or face a ban in the United States.

These technology policy discussions range from national security-critical applications to a broader set of dual-use systems that play a strategic role in a nation’s economic competitiveness. However, not all technological advancements threaten national and economic security to the same extent. Due to this broad range of applications and limited government capacity to address all risks effectively, it is critical to take an evidence-based approach to prioritizing technology policies.

Purpose and approach

To help policymakers prioritize the growing risks and opportunities posed by new technologies, the workshop convened by AC GCH and SCSP aimed to develop and test an actionable framework that assesses risks and ranks technology priorities. Participants structured their discussion around SCSP’s Strategic Evaluation Framework, which poses twenty-one questions along three categories: technology, rival, and domestic factors.

  • Technology: Questions in the technology category are intended to help determine to what extent a technology could impact US national competitiveness and whether it is strategically important enough to warrant policy actions to strengthen U.S. leadership. These questions focus on the potential impact the technology may have on national security interests and economic development.
  • Rival: Questions in the rival category are designed to assess to what extent a rival’s strength in a technology could impact US national competitiveness. These questions consider a rival’s current state and potential developments in a technology, how a competitor’s leadership in a technology may undermine US leadership and power, and the competitor’s motivations and intentions.
  • Domestic: Questions in the domestic category assess to what extent domestic innovation capacity and capabilities in a technology impact US national competitiveness. These questions focus on the US strengths and weaknesses in a technology, the role that allies and partners play in a technology’s development, and political, policy, and societal motivations to consider.

Five technologies—commercial drones, electric vehicles, genomic sequencers, Internet of Things, and mobile applications—identified by AC GCH and SCSP served as case studies to test this framework. AC GCH and SCSP selected technologies at varying levels of specificity in order to emulate real policy discussions and to represent a broad range of risks to US national competitiveness. In groups, participants assessed each technology’s strategic importance by assigning a score from one to ten (one being the lowest level of importance, ten being the highest level of importance) to the technology, rival, and domestic factors. Participants subsequently ranked the five technologies based on a comparative analysis combining all three factors’ scores.

The intent behind force ranking the technologies during the exercise was to encourage participants to grapple with the tradeoffs policymakers face when confronted with limited resources and policy attention, rather than the actual rankings themselves. The outcome showed that every group, despite discussing the same five technologies, ranked the technologies in a different order, demonstrating the difficulty of reaching a consensus on technology policy priorities.

Key takeaways

Varying interpretations of US national competitiveness

Determining which technologies require protection or promotion in today’s policy debates is complicated by the ambiguity of what constitutes ‘US national competitiveness.’ The workshop discussion reflected this reality, where stakeholders’ interpretations diverged significantly. The lines between national security and economic competitiveness are frequently blurred, highlighting the urgent need for a more methodical approach to technology risk assessment and policy prioritization.

Cross-cutting technology risks

Applying the Strategic Evaluation Framework to this set of five technologies highlighted the cross-cutting technology risks that warrant consideration in their own right, such as cybersecurity, data security, and supply-chain risks. For example, both commercial drones and gene sequencers could give foreign adversaries access to sensitive data that can be used against the United States and its people. The recurrence of such cross-cutting risks suggests an additional variable that policymakers should systematically consider. By focusing on the cross-cutting risks, policies can effectively target a more comprehensive set of priorities.

Four core risks

Four core risks could be layered on top of the Strategic Evaluation Framework to drill deeper into the questions at the heart of policymakers’ technology promotion and protection decisions. Using semiconductors as an example, we provide a brief, non-exhaustive snapshot of how this additional layer of analysis could be used to identify the types of risks a technology poses.

Access: What are the risks to US security and innovation if US stakeholders do not have access to the same quality of technology that competitors or adversaries do?

  • Insufficient access to advanced-node semiconductors creates the risk of falling behind competitors in innovation, particularly in AI, as advanced-node semiconductors provide the critical computational power that is needed to both develop and deploy AI systems.

Manufacturing capability and capacity: What are the risks to US security and innovation if the United States lacks the capabilities or capacity to manufacture a technology?

  • Lack of capability or insufficient capacity in semiconductor manufacturing presents supply-chain risks that have significant implications for the US economy, which is heavily dependent on chips, as well as US military efforts. Relying on competitors or adversaries to supply critical technologies could present detrimental disruptions to the economy and US innovation efforts. Additionally, Chinese subsidies may distort market dynamics, especially in the mature-node market, and could disadvantage US and other foreign companies in the market.

US adoption: What are the risks to US security and innovation of US persons and industry adopting a competitor or adversary’s technology?

  • The risks of US persons or industry using semiconductors supplied by adversaries, such as Chinese manufacturers could implement backdoors into the hardware that poses cybersecurity risks to users.

Third-country adoption: What are the risks to US security and innovation if third countries adopt a competitor or adversary’s technology?

  • Similar to the risks that Chinese manufactured chips may pose to US persons or industry, backdoors installed on chips may pose cybersecurity risks to users in third-party countries as well.

Challenges in prioritizing technologies

Another goal of the workshop was to simulate the tradeoffs policymakers encounter when confronted by imperfect comparisons, short deadlines, and competing interests.

The approach used in the workshop raised a few key questions about how to consistently apply the framework across technologies. For example, should technology factors weigh more heavily than rival and domestic factors? Should rival factors weigh more heavily than domestic factors? How can a quantitative scoring system be clearly defined so it may be applied consistently across technologies? An additional challenge that came to light is the varying levels of specificity of technologies. For example, during the workshop, participants compared commercial drones, which are a relatively specific technology, to mobile applications, which spans a broad category of technologies. This variation in specificity made comparing and ranking technologies relative to one another difficult, emphasizing the need to address these challenges in order to establish a successful framework for policymakers.

An additional layer of a risk-based framework would also require comparing risks and making decisions about which risks to prioritize. Nonetheless, it may be easier to make decisions about policy priorities if technologies are being considered based on categorical risks. By focusing on one risk, policymakers could, for example, choose to implement data security regulations that address the data security risks posed by various technologies. In fact, the Biden administration is already implementing such an approach to address a narrow set of data security risks.

Diverse range of perspectives and expertise

The benefit of bringing together a workshop of researchers, policymakers, and industry experts ensures that there is a diverse range of perspectives and expertise, allowing for a robust conversation that challenges assumptions. Proactive conversations about risks posed by technologies and potential policy options that could be used to address those risks require a balanced group of experts who understand both the technologies and the policy landscape.

About the author

Hanna Dohmen is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a research analyst at Georgetown’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology.


This strategic insights memo was written and prepared with the support of the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and the Special Competitive Studies Project.

The Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) is a nonpartisan, nonprofit initiative with a clear mission: to make recommendations to strengthen America’s long-term competitiveness as artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies are reshaping our national security, economy, and society.

Global China Hub

The Global China Hub researches and devises allied solutions to the global challenges posed by China’s rise, leveraging and amplifying the Atlantic Council’s work on China across its fifteen other programs and centers.

Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria