Is the 'endless frontier' at an end?

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Hill

The COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying U.S. concerns about China’s technological strength. Unfortunately, much of the resulting policy debate has centered on ways to limit China’s capacities — when what we need most is a systematic approach to strengthening our own. In any race, success comes from training harder and running faster — not from hoping that your challenger will trip. To guarantee our nation’s future economic health and national security, we need a comprehensive, forward-looking national strategy to keep the U.S. at the forefront of science and technology.

Fortunately, a bipartisan bill has emerged that offers the blueprint the moment demands. Introduced by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.) and Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.), the Endless Frontier Act would provide a visible, focused and sustained commitment to U.S. research, education and technology transfer, as well as to economic development — precisely the combination of remedies that will secure the nation’s future.

The bill recognizes that since World War II, federal research funding has been a central contributor to U.S. economic dominance. It’s no accident that sectors like aircraft and information technology that have benefited most from decades of federal research support have been the leading U.S. exporters and emblems of U.S. leadership. The legislation would authorize $100 billion in new funding over five years for research and related activities.

But the bill also reflects the fact that, to counter China’s very different model for economic growth, we not only need to invest more in science and technology now, we also need to invest differently than in the past. We simply must move more effectively from scientific success to market impact. With that in mind, the bill would establish a new technology directorate at the National Science Foundation that would fund fundamental research with an eye toward advancing 10 pivotal technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum computing. To complement this research, the bill also calls for supporting more students pursuing undergraduate and advanced studies in relevant fields and for developing new ways to move ideas more effectively from lab to market, including by creating test beds for new developments.

The aim of the new directorate is to support fundamental scientific research — with specific goals in mind. This is not about solving incremental technical problems. As one example, in artificial intelligence, the focus would not be on further refining current algorithms, but rather on developing profoundly new approaches that would enable machines to “learn” using much smaller data sets — a fundamental advance that would eliminate the need to access immense data sets, an area where China holds an immense advantage. Success in this work would have a double benefit: seeding economic benefits for the U.S. while reducing the pressure to weaken privacy and civil liberties in pursuit of more “training” data.

Supporting fundamental research with an eye to real-world challenges is the kind of thinking that drove the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop what became the internet. Such use-inspired basic research, funded by NSF — a trusted and experienced civilian agency that understands research and researchers — is what’s needed to retain U.S. leadership in both science and technology, to keep us prosperous and secure.

The bill would also encourage universities to experiment with new ways to help accelerate the process of bringing innovative ideas to the marketplace, either via established companies or startups. At MIT we started The Engine, an independent entity that provides private-sector funding, work space and technical assistance to start-ups that are developing technologies with enormous potential but that require more extensive technical development than typical VCs will fund, from fusion energy to a fast, inexpensive test for COVID-19. Other models may suit other institutions — but the nation needs to encourage many more such efforts, across the country, to reap the full benefits of our federal investment in science.

Some may worry that this new approach could impair NSF’s vital mission, but I believe it is a natural complement, in keeping with the agency’s impressive record of adapting to the nation’s needs. The U.S. has the top universities in the world because we have combined the best strategies of the past with the flexibility to respond to new challenges; this legislation is designed to protect and maintain support for curiosity-driven basic research across scientific fields — the mainstay of NSF’s work that serves the nation so well — even as it furthers NSF’s mission and gives it additional tools.

Nations, like individuals, do not succeed by sitting still and hoping that others will fail. Success comes to those that build on their own strengths, learning from what has worked in the past but not being constrained by it.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the report that launched the postwar U.S. research enterprise, Science: The Endless Frontier. That enterprise has helped give Americans decades of unparalleled prosperity, a rising quality of life and military confidence. The Endless Frontier Act would enable us to capitalize on what has worked and retool it for today’s world, with its new challenges and challengers.