Congress wants to out-innovate China at any cost, but innovation itself may suffer
On June 8, the Senate passed a historic authorization bill for research and innovation, the United States Innovation and Competition Act. The House followed suit just three weeks later, passing the National Science Foundation for the Future Act on June 28. And in the coming weeks, lawmakers from the two chambers will gather to hash out the differences between the bills and chart final legislation for President Biden’s desk.
Both initiatives propose a welcome infusion of resources into innovation and research in the U.S. — the first such infusion in decades, unless one counts the unfulfilled America Competes Act from 2008 — but both minimize an essential ingredient for innovation: international collaboration.
The Senate bill, in particular, got so loaded up with anti-China amendments during debate that the author’s original focus on innovation is obscured. This anti-China stance has colored the conversation about research for the past several years, taking legitimate concerns about “undue foreign influence” a step farther to politicize and provincialize higher education. Ultimately, our national interest suffers. If the ultimate reason for greater innovation is prosperity, sustainability and well-being, international collaboration is needed.
The biggest problems we face today are arguably global ones. The pandemic is top of mind right now, but many other issues threaten life as we know it in this country and abroad: including economic recession, climate change, environmental pollution, food insecurity, resource scarcity and geopolitical hostilities around the world. The best minds on these subjects are part of a vibrant international community — from domestic scientists who work with international collaborators to international scientists who have skills, datasets and perspectives we desperately need. New solutions often require thinking differently. Researchers positioned in different historical, cultural and social contexts see and do things in ways we might not yet have thought.
Different perspectives help us imagine new ideas and make our research innovative and relevant.
Well-known examples of lifesaving international research collaborations include the Human Genome Project, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the International Space Station (ISS), and the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). International research sites — like the UNESCO World Heritage Center in the Galapagos Islands, which has allowed international researchers to understand the interplay between species and environments for almost 200 years — are crucial to understanding our planet. Ongoing and recent collaborations in the medical field epitomize the urgent need to pool our resources and share our data to fight devastating diseases like Ebola, HIV-AIDs, Malaria and COVID-19. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, it is that we need more space, resources and encouragement for engagement, not less.
And yet, even as global problems have increased, the federal government has made international collaboration more difficult.
During the past several years, as regulatory requirements on cross-border research have increased and funding opportunities have decreased, many scientists have been forced to choose between their funding and their productive international partnerships. The researchers who feel the most pressure to divest of their connections abroad are those of Asian descent who once brought the U.S. strategic advantage, with rich data sources and contacts abroad. These scholars are now beset on all sides by suspicions of collusion with foreign governments.
Instead of building more walls, Congress should authorize resources and regulations that support innovation and use-inspired research for the good of American citizens by providing the infrastructure for responsible international collaboration. When Congressional leaders conference the House and Senate bills in the coming weeks and chart final legislation, they should consider four specific opportunities.
First, increase funding for international research collaborations by reversing the trend of declining funding for the NSF’s Office of International Science and Engineering (OISE). This will allow researchers to grow their collaborations with top colleagues in peer universities around the world, many of whom have earned PhDs from U.S. universities.
Second, create a new funding stream for consultative groups globally in key areas that do not present security threats such as agriculture, health, and sustainability. These are areas where the problems are global and the dangers are imminent.
Third, significantly increase funding for programs like Fulbright and Title VI that provide basic research to understand the cultural, social and political norms and contexts abroad. Our diplomatic corps, which has experienced unsettling attrition during the past several years, came out of these programs, and more are desperately needed. These programs will be vital resource as we rebuild lost capacity.
Fourth, reverse recent trends and encourage students from across the globe to come to the U.S. again. These students represent an infusion of resources: They bring critical academic strengths and contribute billions of dollars to the U.S. economy. We should allow them to put their training to use for our benefit, rather than shutting them out with punitive immigration and work policies.
With these resources, universities can meet the challenges of tomorrow by bringing together the best and brightest from across the world.
We need innovation and growth, but isolation and fear won’t get us there: a global research community will.
Wendy Wolford is vice provost for international affairs at Cornell University and professor of global development in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She is a former Fulbright scholar.
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