The Senate passed important legislation on Tuesday to help reinvigorate American science and innovation. The bipartisan bill, the U.S. Competition and Innovation Act, would authorize significant increases in federal scientific investment while giving the National Science Foundation authority to make investments in science aimed at catapulting discoveries made in the lab into innovations that improve quality of life and fuel economic growth.
This investment could hardly be more urgent. Over the past several decades, federal investment in research and development has flatlined as a share of the economy even as our global competitors have jumpstarted innovation and economic growth through such investment. When measured as a share of the economy, U.S. investment in these areas is just a third of what it was at its peak.
Yet U.S. leadership in research and development now is arguably more important than ever before. As population growth slows, breakthrough technologies that boost productivity will become more important to boosting economic growth and lifting living standards. And one needs to look no further than the dawning sectors of the future – from biotechnology to robotics, artificial intelligence to cybersecurity – to see that U.S. primacy in these areas has massive ethical and geopolitical implications. Fairness and democratic values should be embedded in them.
The Senate bill would be a down payment on American leadership in these frontier fields. With bold leadership from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Todd Young (R-IN), the bill garnered a supermajority of support in the Senate. Next week, the House Science Committee will mark up complementary legislation, the National Science Foundation for the Future Act and the Department of Energy Science for the Future Act, which would boost scientific research funding authorizations for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Department of Energy (DOE). The NSF for the Future Act would provide the National Science Foundation authority to make bold investments in technologies to address specific societal challenges ranging from climate change to cybersecurity, while the DOE for the Future Act would support important research to ensure energy sources are clean, sustainable, reliable, and affordable.
Both the House and Senate bills also focus on safeguarding federally supported research from attempts by foreign governments to steal intellectual property. Public universities are deeply committed to safeguarding this research, but appropriate international scientific collaborations are also a cornerstone of modern scientific practice. As lawmakers work to reconcile these bills, it’s critical to ensure avenues for appropriate international scientific and education partnerships are preserved.
But even if legislation is signed into law, success will hardly be assured. Science has never been one-shot success story. Scientific discoveries build on each other, from one hypothesis to experiment to another discovery to commercial breakthrough. So, too, with federal investment in scientific research and development. While both the U.S. Competition and Innovation Act and NSF for the Future Act would give the National Science Foundation new authority and provide the outlines for new investment, lawmakers will have to back these broad outlines with actual funding to support new discoveries.
Robust federal investment in scientific research has played a major role in helping the U.S. achieve scientific leadership for decades. We are still reaping the rewards of federal investments in science made decades ago. Consider the example of disease testing technologies that have played a crucial role in slowing the pandemic. In the 1960s, the National Science Foundation funded a public research professor named Tom Brock to investigate how bacteria was surviving in superhot springs in Yellowstone National Park. It was the type of research that could have easily been derided as a research assignment allowing a professor to undertake a plush project at a national park.
Instead, it would prove a watershed moment for disease testing. Discoveries Mr. Brock made helped lay the groundwork for polymerase chain reaction testing. Insights from his research ultimately helped revolutionize diagnostic testing for diseases such as tuberculous, the flu, and COVID-19 – allowing lab technicians to safely and quickly identify infection at scale to slow the spread of disease and inform health care decisions. Decades of investment fostered these advances.
Not all scientific research should be aimed at practical applications, but we know additional investment in this area could help springboard more ideas made in the lab into new advances and technologies. That idea is at the heart of the two bills working their way through Congress. For the U.S. to continue to achieve leading-edge discoveries in sectors such as biotechnology, quantum computing, and clean energy, we’ll need to make broad-based, sustained investments in curiosity- and solutions-driven science.
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