Technological innovation has long been and will continue to be critically important to both income growth and national competitiveness. So it is important that we examine the 2020 presidential candidates’ policy agendas through that lens.
In every presidential election since 2008, the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) has released a report examining the two major candidates’ positions on a host of technology and innovation policy issues.
In past elections, both parties’ nominees generally articulated positions on nearly all of the policy areas ITIF identified as key priorities for promoting innovation. This is generally not the case in 2020. While Biden has stated his positions on most of the issues tracked by ITIF, Trump has been much vaguer, offering few detailed positions. Nevertheless, we believe it is important to clearly document what the two candidates have said (or not said) about these critical innovation issues (as well as what the Trump administration has done to date), as their positions serve as the best-available guide to the next administration’s policy priorities—and the lack of a stated position may indicate which issues would be low priorities.
This report is based on information gathered directly from the campaigns’ websites and policy documents, and from media accounts of statements the candidates have made. The report begins with an overview of each candidate’s general philosophy on technology, innovation, and trade policy, and then compares the candidates’ policy positions across 10 specific issue areas:
- Innovation and Research and Development (R&D)
- Internet and Digital Economy
- Broadband and Telecommunications
- Education and Skills
- Advanced Manufacturing
- Life Sciences and Biotechnology
- Clean Energy Innovation
ITIF is a nonpartisan research and educational institution that focuses on innovation, productivity, and digital economy issues. It does not endorse any candidates for office. Rather, our goal in providing a factual, impartial comparison of the candidates’ technology and innovation policies is to amplify the national dialogue around the need to bolster innovation-based economic growth.
General Philosophy Toward Technology and Innovation Policy
In many ways, the candidates have very different approaches to technology and innovation policy. Trump has focused more on reducing government barriers in the economy, including taxes and regulations that, among other things, limit innovation. The administration has taken this approach with a number of emerging technologies, including autonomous transportation systems and artificial intelligence (AI), pushing for an innovation principle-based approach. And while the Trump budgets have increased funding for research in some particular technology areas, especially AI, overall they have sought to cut government support for research.
While much of the focus of Biden’s economic plan is on more traditional issues such as expanding health care and investing in physical infrastructure, the campaign has highlighted its support for significantly increased public investment in R&D and advanced production.
As described below, the two candidates are closer together on trade policy, where both reject or at least question the prevailing Washington consensus on expanding trade—and both are focused on being tough on China, with Trump preferring a largely unilateral approach and Biden supporting a multilateral approach.
The candidates have very different approaches to technology and innovation policy.
Biden’s approach to technology and innovation policy appears to be formulated to engage the government as an active partner alongside industry in setting a national technology and innovation agenda, as well as a tougher regulator of many technology industries. Moreover, a particular focus of the Biden agenda is to support innovation policy that accomplishes social policy goals, such as revitalizing economically distressed communities and regions, and supporting economic opportunities among disadvantaged groups, including racial minorities.
When it comes to climate innovation, the Trump administration would do little; in fact, its budget proposals have cut funding for clean energy R&D. In contrast, while much of the Biden proposals related to climate focus on regulation and adoption of existing technologies (e.g., building insulation), Biden also supports massive increases in clean energy R&D funding.
They differ on immigration, with Biden embracing the more traditional Democratic position, which has supported increases in both high- and low-skill immigration. President Trump has pushed back against greater immigration, especially illegal, low-skill, and H1-B immigration. The Biden campaign has proposed significant increases in public investment in education and skills. The Trump administration has pushed for a reduction in funding generally, but increases in support for apprenticeship programs; and the president signed an executive order, as ITIF had recommended, requiring the federal government to hire on the basis of capabilities, not degrees.
Both support increased investment in rural broadband infrastructure, although it appears Biden supports much larger federal investments in this space.
When it comes to tax and regulation, the campaigns differ significantly. The Biden campaign supports higher taxes on business, particularly large corporations; stronger regulations, including on privacy and broadband providers; and more-aggressive antitrust enforcement, particualy on large Internet companies. The Trump administration embraces a more traditional Republican approach of lighter regulations and lower business taxes, and antitrust that is grounded in the consumer welfare principle. However, one exception is when it comes to Internet platforms wherein the administration has argued for limiting Section 230 protections and potentially bringing antitrust enforcement against major platforms. Biden agrees on this.
Table 1: The candidates’ general philosophies toward technology and innovation policy