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11 March 2006

Technical expertise and leveraged accounts

It is interesting to note the continued closing of the gap between the US’s acknowledged technical primacy in a number of fields from engineering to pharmaceuticals, and the developing capabilities of a range of emerging powerhouses such as India, PRC, and others. This post at Corante discussing the implications for the pharmaceutical research field is an excellent example outlining this changing dynamic.

These trends will have profound implications for how the community leverages specific subject matter expertise, especially in a number of technical areas in which increasingly, new knowledge and new developments critical to understanding major accounts will reside with persons who are not US citizens and may be outside the community’s traditional reach.

While for a long time the intelligence community has been a bastion of for US only approaches, even this hard wall is starting to erode. While one major software developer performing a significant amount of work for the US government once recruited programmers on the basis that their classified jobs could never be outsourced, even those seeming absolutes are being called into question with the ever growing reliance on commercial off the shelf (COTS) and open source software solutions. Your authors have also in recent months run into at least one major contractor shop seriously exploring the complex issues involved in offshoring (to selected allied nations) basic high volume open source research tasks for less sensitive requirements. While these are early steps, they are the first signs of a sea change about to overtake the community as a whole.

Nowhere is this perhaps more obvious than in the area of biological defense. The growing need for highly trained medical and biological research personnel to ensure preparedness and to staff new bio-safety facilities has brought with it a host of questions regarding security as what once was a uniquely governmental effort is introduced into university and other private sector labs. These labs offer unequaled, and often entirely singular, capabilities – but have never had to address the questions of access and of background which are routine within the community. The talent pool which these labs draw from is increasingly not of US origin, and the closely knit nature of many of these facilities makes such distinctions increasingly difficult to impose on already robust organizations and cultures.

There have been no answers to the questions of globalization in other industries. From an economic perspective, it is a net good. From a geo-political perspective, increased connectivity with other nations creates stronger alliances. From an individual perspective, it raises questions of job security and competitiveness. Thus far, technical knowledge in selected fields has become increasingly specialized in response. So too might the community’s in the next generations, which while creating more complex and multi-layered structures with a number of dependencies which must be carefully examined, might free our technical experts, analysts, and even collectors to pursue new and innovative approaches to hard target problems.