The US government’s best ally: Science
One of the greatest scientific achievements of the past century — the rapid development of safe, effective COVID-19 vaccines — happened because the United States broke with convention. A unique public and private sector collaboration, built on the foundations of decades of federal basic science support and fueled by urgency and an infusion of funds, unleashed the best America has to offer.
As a new administration takes the helm in Washington, our nation should see this historic scientific success not as a once-in-a-century achievement, but rather, as a blueprint. The pandemic has shown us that we must reimagine the place that science and technology hold in America’s future and in her government. We must leap forward if we are to nurture innovation and our economy and compete with nations like China that are seeking to overtake us in the pursuit of science and technology. And we must tackle the existential challenges our nation and world face today — from food, water and energy security to the threat of further pandemics to climate challenges — by being aggressive and proactive, rather than passive and reactive.
We need the bold vision backed by bold investments we’ve embraced at other critical moments in our history. The Cold War of the 1950s ignited the space race and gave birth to NASA and DARPA. The 9/11 attacks forced the reassessment of U.S. national security and the formation of the Department of Homeland Security.
In the same vein, there are three things America can and must do to forge a new path to progress for the next generation. President-elect Biden has already committed to the first: elevating science and technology leadership to the Cabinet level. His recently announced science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, President and founding director of MIT and Harvard’s Broad Institute Eric Lander, will be the first person in that position to become a member of the Cabinet. Biden is to be lauded for this important step, which will modernize the U.S.’s approach to science and technology, bring scientific thinking to the highest level of government and ensure that science has a seat at the table. A Cabinet-level appointment also sends a message to the nation that the White House is committed to establishing sound policies rooted in science and facts. We cannot address climate challenges, develop drugs at light speed, and solve the urgent technological problems of our day without a scientific advisor who has both gravitas and access to the president.
With a science advisor in his Cabinet, Biden should also double R&D and STEM investments. America’s underinvestment in R&D — 0.7 percent of GDP today versus 1.9 percent in 1964 — has caught up with us, and the U.S. now ranks 14th among competitor nations in public investment in science and technology as a percentage of GDP. Over the next five years, the U.S. needs to double the federal expenditure for R&D and STEM education to 1.4 percent of GDP. That would bring us to about $380 billion in five years — a quite reasonable investment, especially when viewed alongside the trillions needed to combat this pandemic. Today, both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation turn down four out of five approved proposals. The inspiration of U.S. scientists has not been limited; only the funding has been. That must change.
The return on such investments would be dramatic, and these priorities align with American sensibilities and our national needs. A survey commissioned by Research!America last year found that three-quarters of U.S. adults call federally supported university research an urgent priority, and 7 in 10 support federal incentives to encourage students to enter STEM fields.
Finally, the U.S. must coordinate science and technology at the federal level. The United States must align the science and technology efforts of the 20 federal departments and agencies that conduct and fund R&D today. A Cabinet-level advisor and more funding will be critical in achieving this and accelerating our nation’s research and development. The independence of science and technology is an American strength, but coordination and collaboration between federal research agencies is critical to addressing national and global threats.
Our national science plan should focus on the existential challenges to our nation, which span public health and health care; environment and climate change; food and water security; and energy. A proven leader should be assigned to each priority and tasked with building cooperation across the boundaries of federal agencies and departments; attracting private sector participation; identifying and capitalizing on potentially disruptive technologies, innovations and trends; and conceiving new initiatives.
This structure would unleash American ingenuity more strategically and effectively against burgeoning threats, opening the way for discoveries and applications that were inconceivable even a decade ago.
If the U.S. prioritizes and elevates science and technology as we envision, we can bring about a future that seems a world away from our reality. Life expectancy would rise, reversing a disturbing trend that began even before COVID-19 arrived. Alzheimer’s could become history. Sustainable farming and crop production would serve people and the environment. Cleaner energy production could begin to meet the scale of need. Science is the U.S. government’s best ally to create an American renaissance and a new era of American scientific leadership.
We’ve glimpsed what is possible this past year in Operation Warp Speed, the culmination of decades of expertise and exploration that became the life-saving moonshot of our time. With a renewal of American priorities in funding and structure, science and technology can become what this nation needs: a pathway that leads from problems to solutions for all people, inaugurating a new sense of hope.
Kristina Johnson is president of The Ohio State University. Darío Gil is senior vice president and the director of IBM Research. They are members of the Science and Technology Action Committee, a nonpartisan group of individuals — from nonprofits, philanthropies, industry and academia — who support urgent action to promote science and technology research, development and education in the United States.