The certainty of the unknown — why increased federal investment in science and technology is a necessity
© Getty Images

As America faces a once in a generation health crisis, Congress has appropriated over 2.5 trillion dollars to the COVID-19 response in just a month and a half. Yet the percentage of federal spending on research and development – namely on the scientists and engineers who can innovate us out of this crisis and better prepare us for the next – has been in decline since the 1970s.

In a time when our national defense planning has shifted focus to great power competition, addressing the challenge posed by rising powers requires an ambitious plan for national investment and aggressive talent development in science and technology. Despite bipartisan support for increased investment in our national security innovation base in this era of strategic competition, growth in the science and technology budget is almost always sacrificed to field the mature technologies of today.

While we grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to consider how the federal government can invest in innovations that will lead us out of this crisis, and protect against similar crises in the future. One agency is well-equipped to handle such investment: The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1958, in the shadows of the Sputnik launch and the chill of the Cold War, our nation created DARPA.  DARPA’s purpose was clear – to create and prevent strategic and technological surprise. Over the decades, DARPA research has contributed to revolutionary new military and commercial technologies and products, including the Internet, night vision, stealth; and even the first iPhone. While the nature of the threat has changed over the last 60 years, DARPA’s guiding principle has not: Big rewards require taking big risks.

Last year, as chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities, we led a hearing with the top science and technology leaders from the Department of Defense. Across the table from us were Dr. Steven Walker, the director of DARPA, and his deputy, Dr. Peter Highnam, now acting director. 

During the hearing our colleague, Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), asked Dr. Walker, “What keeps you up at night?”

Dr. Walker responded without hesitation: Biology.

DARPA’s investments in biotechnology and pandemic preparedness over the last decade have given us our best chance at developing a rapid testing and treatment capability for COVID-19. DARPA’s projects aimed to revolutionize how our country develops capabilities using the properties of biology to protect our women and men in uniform, while simultaneously preparing the nation to prevent and defend against biological threats.

ADVERTISEMENT

Most importantly, DARPA’s programs have contributed to a deep bench of biotechnology experts and birthed innovative new businesses that have brought down our country’s risk and accelerated our response. In fact, the first COVID-19 vaccine trials to start human testing last month grew out of a DARPA investment. What’s more, this vaccine does not rely on fragile overseas supply chains – in China and elsewhere – for mass production.

DARPA’s contribution to our COVID response doesn’t stop there. Early DARPA investments also funded the development of a widespread, fast-detection point-of-care test capability that recently received FDA Emergency Use Authorization and a portable, more cost-effective ventilator. Finally, in a capability that will be critical for our military, first responders, and health care heroes, DARPA has funded an antibody testing capability that will allow for rapid assessment of an individual’s possible immunity based on prior exposure to the virus, which could accelerate these front line heroes’ return to the important work of protecting the American people.

DARPA’s ability to catalyze our nation’s response to pandemics is the product of more than half a century of stable funding. Thanks to this stable funding, DARPA has rigorously pursued ideas that are outside the comfort zone of mainstream agencies, including those that are too risky or undeveloped for commercial companies to pursue.

Through the CARES Act, Congress provided the Department of Defense with supplemental funding to address the COVID-19 crisis, and a substantial portion was used to help DARPA accelerate their COVID-19 research. But it is critical, as we move through and past this crisis, that this Congress continue to support science and technology research across the Department of Defense in this year’s Defense Authorization Act and in the decades to come. 

If we choose to invest in science only in times of crisis, then we are setting the nation up for failure. Instead of shrinking science and technology budgets, Congress should expand our investment in the American scientists and engineers who are working to avoid and ameliorate the crises of tomorrow.

As leaders on the House Armed Services Committee, we will continue to champion increased science and technology funding in future COVID response bills and in the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021.

While we do not yet know the full impact of the current pandemic or when life will return to normal, it is unquestionable that the impact to our country, and indeed the world, would be more severe without the contributions of DARPA and our government science and technology agencies. Every dollar we invest in science and technology is an investment in our future and the certainty of the unknown. 

Langevin represents Rhode Island’s 2nd District and is chairman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities. Stefanik represents New York’s 21st District and is ranking member of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities.