précis Interview: Kenneth Oye

  • Fall 2022 ∕  Winter 2023
précis Interview: Kenneth Oye

Kenneth Oye is a professor of political science (School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) and data systems and society (School of Engineering). He is the director of the Program on Emerging Technologies (PoET) at the Center for International Studies (CIS). His work in international relations includes Cooperation under AnarchyEconomic Discrimination and Political Exchange, and four “Eagle” monographs on American foreign policy, and advisory work for the Petersen Institute, UNIDO and US Treasury, Commerce and EXIM. His work in technology policy has focused on adaptive management of risks associated with synthetic biology, pharmaceuticals, the Internet and nuclear energy, with papers in Nature, Science, Clinical Pharmacology and TherapeuticsPolitics and the Life Sciences and Issues in Science and Technology. 

FALL 22/WINTER 23 :: précis Interview :: Kenneth Oye
Ken Oye
March 3, 2023

précis: How did you first get interested in emerging technologies?

KO: From 1992-2000, I served as director of the Center of International Studies (CIS). When you have an official position of any kind, people seek you out from across the Institute. 

Scientists and engineers started approaching me in the form of: “I’m a combustion engineer working on improving the efficiency of industrial boilers in China. There are 500,000 of them. Do you think there might be policy implications of our work?” Or, and this is the one that really got me rolling, “I’m working on plutonium reprocessing in Japan. Are there implications for proliferation? Are there political sensitivities? Could we talk?” 

It was fascinating to apply the principles, the theories developed in political economy, security affairs, and international relations more generally to problems that were not the conventional ones being discussed in the major journals: International Organization and International Security.

From the beginning, the difference between working the science and technology topics as distinct from more conventional international relations and political economy—make it a little bit different from traditional international relations and security affairs. There is technical knowledge needed for traditional international relations scholarship, but it does not overwhelm, it’s not insurmountable. Of course, you want to know a little bit about nuclear weapons before you start talking about nuclear strategy, for example.

When I started working with these engineers we settled on ground-rule: “No faking it.” I do not have to be a world class combustion or biological engineer, but I need to understand what they’re talking about. They need to understand the policy stuff as well, even if they’re not going to be a first-rate political economist. That’s an interesting ground-rule and proved to be more useful than you’d expect, since asking basic questions about things and being free to do so made the work much better because people would question first principles. 

For example, I found a flaw in a formula people were using for calculating climate change benefits of efficiency gains. On the other side, one of the engineers I was working with, a Hungarian, helped me understand the effects of incomplete economic reforms in China because he had lived through it in Hungary before he became an engineer. 

précis: Among today’s emerging technologies, what impresses you the most?

KO: Information technology and novel environmental technologies interest me, but right now biotechnology is the area that has changed the fastest and is most different from what I saw when I was in college. There was a group of biologists who were just cranking up on genome editing when I was director of the CIS. Looking at the reactions to GMOs, they anticipated correctly that societal responses to and fears of genome editing would be huge. So, the synthetic biologists were not shying away from engagement with policy folks. They understood that their ability to do this kind of work would be affected by how their field was seen and how it was regulated. And this is what shocked me. I thought they were going to be techno-libertarians, but they realized that in the absence of good public policies, there would be dangers of running into huge problems, so they were not reflexively anti-regulation. They also ended up securing a huge NSF grant for an engineering research center and invited me in to do policy work with a couple of other folks. So, it is partially the intrinsic interest in these fields of colossal importance. But it is also partly opportunistic, and it helps to have people that want to work with you and vice versa.

précis: What has the COVID-19 pandemic taught us about the globalized economy? Do you expect the adjustments to the COVID-related supply shocks to have lasting impacts?

KO: Boy, COVID has been a laboratory. In terms of policy, every policy area and issue that you can think of has a COVID angle on it. Take the MRNA vaccines. The groundwork had been done for MRNA vaccines. If you had told me prior to COVID, that a novel vaccine for a novel virus using very different mechanisms of action, could be created, tested with trials, and approved that fast, I would have said you’re out of your mind. It was a laboratory in policy innovation that was really quite remarkable. And, fortunately, our president at the time, Donald Trump, didn’t ruin the vaccine response. The vaccines were developed and approved faster than typical and the decision to pre-buy vaccines was crucial to the infrastructure. 

On COVID, the areas that have been most interesting and educational have really been taking things that we’ve been thinking about, by “we” I mean the whole field, and evaluating them in the context of what we’ve observed in the last few years. 

Let’s start with protectionism. We’ve been taught that economic downturns should lead to intense protectionism and indeed when COVID kicked in, what we saw in the beginning was intense pandemic mercantilism to protect access to PPE and medicines. If you take the measures that were imposed back in 2020 to restrict exports, 50% were maintained after the first nine months. Most people would guess 90% or 80% due to the stickiness of restrictions, stickiness resting on self-interest. In fact, what happened, according to the WTO, 50% were relaxed. Why? I am working on a paper on this right now and think the reason is that producers have a strong interest in knocking down export controls. If you are making something and you cannot market it internationally, you want to bust the restrictions.

We also learned a lot about industrial policy. It has been fascinating watching people make arguments for old-fashioned techno-industrial policy now from vaccine stockpiling to concerns about Chinese biotechnology. If you look at recent legislation, (ARPA, IRA, CHIPS and Science) they are all full of state-centric activities motivated by competition with China. What does COVID have to do with it? COVID revealed weaknesses that existed before and shook-up assumptions and created a crazy world where you get bipartisan support for state-centric industrial policy.

Finally, the old model of efficiency accomplished through lean global sourcing, I think, has really taken a pounding because the importance of being a little less lean and having reserves has been underscored. The virtues of autarky are now exemplified in a lot of the legislation we see. CHIPS and Science is not about autarky, but really about secure sources of supply. If you take even the Inflation Reductions Act, many provisions there are violations of national origin rules in international trade. Recently, France’s leader Emmanuel Macron was complaining about an EV tax credit that is restricted to vehicles built in North America. Originally it was restricted to vehicles in the US, but Mexico and Canada were included because of USMCA (formerly called NAFTA).  Korea also has a bilateral free trade agreement with the US that the EV credit violates. South Korea is trying to figure out if they can use the dispute settlement mechanisms in the agreement,

The fundamental question, which I don’t hear people talking about is how much value should be placed on security versus security of supply? The trouble with lean production is that you are using up surplus, you are eliminating surplus, you are eliminating reserves you may need when you get hit with shock.  JetBlue is the airline that bought leanness most completely, until six years ago on Valentine’s Day when a big snowstorm hit and it took them weeks to recover. Everybody is now talking supply, security, resiliency, instead of efficiency. That tradeoff is going to be the watchword in six months.