The U.S. must not stop investing in scientific research

Thursday, July 23, 2020

With Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University and chair of the board of directors of the Association of American Universities

For decades, most Americans have taken the U.S. lead in science and technology more or less for granted. But it was not inevitable, and it did not develop by chance. Rather, after World War II, the federal government made crucial choices about our research system — controversial choices at the time — but choices that helped put us on the road to decades of scientific dominance and economic prosperity.

Today, other nations are challenging that dominance as never before, and U.S. leaders need to urgently decide what needs to be done to maintain our strength — how to build on our past, but not be mired in it.

Such vital science policy decisions do not grab the headlines, but they do have lasting consequences; a nation that is weaker and less economically healthy than it could be, and more dependent on others for ideas, is inherently less equipped to tackle the most difficult societal problems. Even as America grapples with today’s urgent and interlocking crises, we must invest in our ability to innovate.

The path to America’s long-standing national strength in science and technology was first laid out in a seminal report called “Science: The Endless Frontier,” published 75 years ago, right after World War II. In it, Vannevar Bush, who had headed federal research during the war while on leave from MIT, proposed that the path to future wealth and well-being was for the federal government to build on the success of its wartime investments in science by financing basic research in university labs.

That was a bold and novel idea for the United States — before the war, the government had funded practically no research, and academic leadership belonged to Europe. But the White House and Congress accepted the report’s logic and vision. They created the National Science Foundation — and ultimately built a research system that has helped power U.S. innovation.

The question now: Is this system capable of meeting the intense triple challenge of the moment — bolder foreign competitors, faster technological change and a merciless race from lab to market?

We are deeply concerned that the answer to that question is “No.”

The U.S. has the fundamental building blocks for success, including many of the world’s top research universities that are at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19. But without a major, sustained funding commitment, a focus on key technologies and a faster system for transforming discoveries into new businesses, products and quality jobs, in today’s arena, America will not prevail.

Fortunately, a bipartisan bill recently introduced in both houses of Congress would have a major impact on putting in place the new elements our system needs. Building on the current mission of the National Science Foundation, the bill, unveiled by U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Todd Young R-Ind., and Reps. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., and Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., would support the most advanced research focused on tough, fundamental questions that are pivotal to advancing key technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing.

The bill also would authorize funding for new scholarships and fellowships and other student assistance to ensure that we have the workforce we need to develop and deploy the latest technologies. And it would enable experiments on how to move ideas into the marketplace more quickly — an area where the U.S. now lags — and create regional economic development centers to help every region reap the economic advantages of scientific progress.

This is exactly the kind of approach needed to meet today’s challenges. Taking its name from the title of Bush’s report, the “Endless Frontier Act” proposes equally bold and novel steps, thoughtfully based on what has worked in the past. It does not seek to alter what NSF is already doing so well, nor to replace it, but to create new strength in parallel.

Today’s leaders have the opportunity to display the farsighted vision their predecessors showed after World War II — to expand and shape our institutions, and to make the investments to adapt to a changing world. It’s hard now to imagine what the U.S. would be like if they had failed to make those difficult choices.

A central idea that guided our postwar leaders remains true today: Science and technology are still key to our future prosperity, security and health. In his report, Bush pointed to a wide array of technical advances that helped the Allies win the war, from penicillin to radar. Now as then, our national prosperity hinges on the next generation of technical triumphs. Now as then, that success is not inevitable, and it will not come by chance. But with focused funding and imaginative policy, we believe it remains in reach. 

If we take the right steps now, the public will be able to look back in 75 years and see that measures such as the “Endless Frontier Act” kept the U.S. at the forefront of innovation, resulting in more secure, healthy and satisfying American lives. What feel today like audacious choices will seem, in retrospect, obvious and wise.


A version of this article was originally published in The Chicago Tribune on July 23, 2020.