The path forward for science under a new administration

As President-elect Joseph Biden fills key positions to address global challenges from COVID-19 to climate change, the scientific community is optimistic he will prioritize research and development. In addition to the mass distribution of effective vaccines to mitigate the risk of the deadly virus, what should be among the key science priorities in his first 100 days in office and beyond?

Quantum science, 5G, and artificial intelligence (AI) have received substantial support in recent years with more than $1 billion in awards for new research institutes. The National Quantum Initiative (NQI) Act, signed in 2018, is a coordinated federal approach to support the development of new technologies, such as the next-generation of quantum computers and quantum sensors. The U.S. National Research Academy also called for greater public investments in high-intensity lasers to enable applications notably in energy, biology and security. To help regain U.S. competitiveness in these fields, the National Photonics Initiative (NPI) — formed by The Optical Society (OSA) and SPIE — advocated for the NQI, and established the bipartisan, bicameral Congressional Optics & Photonics Caucus.

We request that President-elect Biden continue to expand government support for these key industries made possible by optics and photonics, the science of light. An encouraging sign is his proposal for a $300 billion investment over four years in 5G, AI and other technologies to spur the creation of high-quality jobs. Biden’s support is well documented. In 2015, he hailed civilian and defense applications of photonics at the launch of the American Institute for Manufacturing Integrated Photonics (AIM Photonics) in Rochester, N.Y. The institute, he remarked, will “generate the next great breakthrough.”

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Climate change will be a leading priority. Science societies, academia and industry are evaluating the impact of industrial pollution and greenhouse gases as a primary focus of the Global Environmental Measurement and Monitoring (GEMM) Initiative, research that the Biden administration is in a powerful position to elevate. Biden has pledged to move toward a “100 percent clean energy economy” and net-zero emissions by 2050. His campaign described the $400 billion plan as “the largest-ever investment in clean energy research and innovation.” Biden also vowed to rejoin the Paris climate agreement (the U.S. formally withdrew from the accord on Nov. 4, 2020) and implement new environmental policies and programs.

Over the last few years, the U.S. has been at risk of experiencing a severe brain drain as White House executive orders and immigration policies made it increasingly difficult for scientists and students to travel and study in the U.S. These experts contribute substantially to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and application. Reducing unnecessary burdens to the visa process is vital to accelerating scientific progress. Prior to the election, the Biden campaign assured it would increase the availability of permanent, employment-based visas and exempt from any visa cap recent graduates of Ph.D. STEM programs.

The scientific enterprise, much like most sectors, is weathering the fallout of the global pandemic. Many federal and academic laboratories had to shut down for several months disrupting important studies and the work of students and postdoctoral researchers in the STEM fields. Robust funding increases for scientific research are critical to overcome the adverse impact. The appointment of an Office of Science and Technology Policy Director in the first 100 days will also ensure such expertise is immediately integrated in White House policymaking.

We applaud Biden’s goal to focus on scientific integrity and science-based decision-making. In addressing our world’s greatest challenges, from a deadly, contagious virus to climate change, evidence suggests the Biden administration will live up to its commitment to trust science.

Elizabeth A. Rogan is CEO of The Optical Society (OSA).