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The Innovation and Competition Act is progressive policy

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Greg Nash

Democrats and Republicans in Washington may have finally found an issue they can both support. Earlier in June, the U.S. Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) which proposes significant changes to science and technology policy with an eye to U.S. China policy. Approved by a surprisingly bipartisan 68-32 vote, the bill merges Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) Endless Frontier Act and Sen. Robert Menendez’s (D-N.J.) Strategic Competition Act. President Joe Biden has urged speedy passage of the bill in the House, where it’s headed next.

Progressives in the House should support and advance this $250 billion bill, which contains strong provisions that will smartly make the U.S. more competitive, through investments in communities, innovation, improving racial and gender justice and income equality. The bill authorizes the most extensive investment in U.S. innovation infrastructure in a generation, building technology hubs in disadvantaged areas, increasing federal funding for both fundamental and applied research, increasing STEM scholarships and modernizing U.S. technology policymaking. The bill introduces measures to combat systemic sexism in the scientific community and targets minority-serving institutions (MSIs) for additional grants, scholarships and support. The bill also makes strides in recognizing and funding climate change mitigation measures, including clean energy development and conservation mechanisms. Most notably, it expands the definition of STEM to include energy and environmental studies, which will refocus a range of federal policies on these fields. The bill also prioritizes clean technologies for inclusion in the regional technology hub program.

It should not be surprising that USICA has received support from a broad range of stakeholders, including many progressives. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund voiced support for the bill’s $750 million grant program to build research capacity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and MSIs. The American Association of Universities, a group of 66 leading research universities, also praised the bill, calling it an “important step in renewing our country’s commitment to federally sponsored scientific research to better position the United States for a healthier, more secure, more prosperous future.” The bill also contains many of the policy recommendations from the Human Rights Watch regarding international responses to the Chinese government genocide of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang province.  

So, what’s not to like? As USICA moves to the House, some progressive groups have voiced concerns about framing these investments around competition with China. But competition with China is not synonymous with conflict. We should ensure that we are building better, rather than racing to the bottom. That is precisely how this legislation is crafted. A competitive policy toward China that strengthens America should be welcomed by progressive, and all, policymakers. 

Competing with China to innovate, provide international development aid and secure supply chains can result in positive-sum and highly progressive policies, pushing American innovation to greater heights and supporting a thriving economy for the American people. This bill is an opportunity to show the strength of democracy and deliver public goods domestically and abroad. This type of competition is not about China-bashing or xenophobia; rather, it provides an opportunity to address problems in the U.S. that need to be fixed. It creates space for healthy competition in areas where American strength and opportunity have atrophied and where we are being outpaced by China. Confronting the Chinese government’s human rights abuses, poor labor conditions, military excursions and instances of predatory aid are all fundamentally progressive positions that reinforce American values.  

There are a few key areas of this bill that could benefit from more progressive activism in the House. The current bill expands research security initiatives and the role of the FBI in China policy without addressing systemic racism in these initiatives and institutions. It also authorizes $52 billion in economic aid to semiconductor manufacturers without assuring that the money is used for real investment and does not go to stock buybacks and other financial maneuvers. The bill can and should go further in protecting human rights in China. Progressives should advocate for inclusion of the main provisions of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act in this legislation, both of which have strong bipartisan support.  

Ultimately, passing a bill with such significant bipartisan support is, in itself, a win for the American people. This type of cooperation demonstrates to Americans and our allies that democratic governance is viable, that no matter how stark our differences, we can come together to expand economic progress and increase security.  

Nina Palmer is a senior fellow on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress, and was the attaché for the U.S. Department of Energy in Beijing.

Tags Bob Menendez China Chuck Schumer Competition Innovation Innovation and Competition Act Joe Biden Robert Menendez Science STEM STEM fields Technology Technology policy us-china policy USA

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