Biden looks to bolster long-term research and development
President Biden is seeking to ramp up government funding of research projects with injections of cash through both his 2022 budget and a major infrastructure package.
Biden’s budget request, released earlier this month, and his infrastructure proposal from March call for billions of dollars in government research and development, including the creation of health and climate centers modeled after the famed Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg even floated a third new center, focused on infrastructure, known as ARPA-I.
“When you talk about some of the more cutting-edge technologies, this is part of why we think R&D has to be part of the story when you are talking about infrastructure, and it is why an ARPA-I for infrastructure is the sort of thing we are very excited about as part of a research agenda for the future,” he said Thursday during congressional testimony.
Biden has proposed a 20 percent increase to the National Science Foundation, as well as numerous new investments totaling $180 billion in his $2.3 trillion infrastructure package.
The focus on research is an attempt to boost American competitiveness and productivity, and an admission that some of Biden’s loftiest goals rely on creating new technologies.
“Basic research is something that has a lot of really positive spinoff effects,” said Zach Moller, deputy director of the economic program at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank.
“Why do we care about learning about black holes, or advanced mathematics? They end up having some practical purposes once people think about them long enough.”
Experts say creating agencies in the DARPA model is a sign of Biden’s desire to leverage the federal government toward transformative change.
“What DARPA’s really good at is tackling the problems where the chances of success appear low, and it’s going to take a risk tolerance level that’s higher than defense R&D can usually take,” said Andrew Hunter, Director of defense industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Defense R&D is hard in general. DARPA looks at problems that are harder.”
DARPA, founded in 1958 with the goal of giving the U.S. military a technological boost after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, has tackled some of the most challenging problems faced by the defense industry, and produced major breakthroughs that have seeped out into wider usage, most notably the technology behind the internet and early GPS technology.
Unlike other research programs, Hunter said, like those funded by the National Science Foundation, the ARPA approach focuses on bridging interdisciplinary gaps.
“It is a human systems problem as much as anything. In a lot of ways, the DARPA model is about people, how you connect them, so you’ve got to have the right ingredients for that, and that’s where a lot of people who try to replicate DARPA fall down,” he said.
“Properly implemented, there’s a lot of value in the DARPA model, because it can essentially create new possibilities and new techniques.”
The funding approach also puts money into long-term research that could take years to produce results, something private investors are unlikely to find appealing.
Biden’s 2022 budget proposal includes $6.5 billion to create the health-focused ARPA-H to spur “transformational innovation in health research and speed application and implementation of health breakthroughs,” putting an initial focus on cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes. The figure accounts for over two-thirds of the $9 billion increase Biden proposed for the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The climate-focused ARPA, which Biden first floated on the campaign trail, would receive $35 billion over eight years as part of the proposed infrastructure package.
There is broad bipartisan support for boosting research funds.
“Today, federal investment in research and development is at its lowest point in 45 years, when measured against GDP,” Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said Wednesday, noting that nations such as Germany, Japan, and South Korea spend more on R&D than the 2.8 percent of gross domestic product that the U.S. does.
Her Republican counterpart on the committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), signaled similar support.
“Maintaining our edge against rising global competition requires continued support for all components of the nation, science, and technology enterprise,” he said.
When former President Trump repeatedly proposed slashing investments in basic research through the National Science Foundation and NIH, Congress instead increased their research budgets each year.
But Biden’s proposal for new research centers focused on health and climate isn’t without its critics.
Ewelina Czapla, director of energy policy at the right-leaning American Action Forum, said a climate-focused center (ARPA-C) would overlap with and essentially compete against an existing energy center known as ARPA-E, created in 2009.
“It appears that ARPA-E has already been tasked with addressing the very issues that ARPA-C would tackle under Biden’s proposal,” she wrote when the Biden campaign first proposed the idea.
“Of Biden’s eight proposed broadly defined areas for research and development, all are directly tied to the consumption of energy and seeking to drive efficiencies and reduce emissions.”
House Appropriations Committee Chair Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), called the health ARPA a “novel approach,” but also warned that it’s “critical we strike a balance between this new approach and investments in basic research and fundamental discovery at the NIH.”
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) said he worried that such a program “would just duplicate what we already have.”
A yet-to-be scheduled appropriations hearing will focus specifically on NIH and the new health-focused research program.
Congress will have the final say on whether to create and fund the proposals, requiring bipartisan support unless Democrats seek to push them through in a budget reconciliation bill, which can sidestep a GOP filibuster.
Republicans have been broadly leery of Biden’s spending proposals, and may seek to scale back the price tags.
The $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that includes ARPA-C, in particular, is unlikely to gain GOP support in its current form, if at all. Moderate GOP senators are mulling a $600 billion to $800 billion counter-offer focused on traditional infrastructure such as roads and bridges.
It would be unlikely to include the $35 billion for ARPA-C, nor the other massive research funding initiatives Biden is proposing, including $50 billion for a new NSF directorate, $50 billion for semiconductor research, $40 billion for upgrading research labs, and $15 billion for centers of excellence at historically Black colleges and universities.