Restarting American Research
As we fight to keep America safe, healthy, and economically stable during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one certainty: our success depends on science. When faced with a challenge, America’s scientists and engineers have always answered the call and the current crisis is no different. When COVID-19 reached the U.S., they immediately pivoted to apply their knowledge and resources to fight this virus. Universities have devoted engineering departments to 3D print personal protective equipment (PPE), developed inexpensive ventilators and self-sterilizing equipment, and repurposed veterinary labs to process COVID-19 tests. Our federal science agencies have been just as responsive, using unique capabilities at agencies as diverse as the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to fight a common cause.
Just as we have a plan for reopening communities and supporting America’s workers and small businesses, Congress also needs a plan to restart and revitalize American research. Universities, laboratories, and facilities non-essential to COVID-19 research have largely been shuttered, and there will be a cost associated with restarting their work. But because science and technology are required for innovation and economic growth, this must be a near-term priority for Congress.
We are fortunate to have the world’s best scientists working to solve the world’s biggest challenges. That’s no accident—it’s the result of a long history of investment in basic research, world-class facilities, and an advanced STEM workforce. But our commitment to these fundamentals is falling behind other countries, and our resources are being stretched thin by investments in technology that the private sector can and should develop on its own. If we are to overcome future pandemics and scientific challenges, we need a strategy to invest in American research and technology.
China has just such a plan. The Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “Made in 2025” initiative outlines a strategy for becoming the global leader in industries of the future like artificial intelligence, quantum technology, and advanced manufacturing. Part of the CCP’s strategy is acquiring U.S. technology and intellectual property, whether through investment or theft. Earlier this year, the National Science Board warned that for the first time China has surpassed us in total research and development spending.
This is a recipe for disaster. Imagine what the world would look like if China had been the first to develop the internet and the CCP controlled how information flows around the world. If China surpasses us in critical technologies it will have significant implications for our national security, our economic competitiveness, and our way of life. Yet for too long we have relied on China for manufacturing, technology development, and STEM workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear just how dangerous it is to depend on China. The CCP’s coverup of COVID-19 and refusal to share information set us back months and cost thousands of lives. Their control of critical supply chains has also made it more difficult to acquire vital medical supplies. This can never happen again.
The COVID-19 response must be our immediate priority, but we cannot lose ground as the world leader in science and technology. Earlier this year the Republican members of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee introduced H.R. 5685, the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act. The legislation would develop a national strategy for science and technology investment, double basic research funding over ten years, develop an American STEM workforce, and break down barriers to moving research from the lab to the private sector for commercialization. It also lays out a plan for modernizing our research infrastructure. If China can provide world-class laboratories and we cannot, research will migrate to China and we will lose the benefits.
As we develop a plan for reinvigorating American science and technology, we need to learn from past efforts like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). Rather than making strategic investments in infrastructure and priority research, ARRA raised short-term spending across the board and played favorites with green energy loan guarantee programs which led to massive failures like Solyndra. Our country can’t afford another partisan, ill-advised stimulus package. That kind of short-sighted, parochial thinking will put us at a disadvantage as China strategically pursues the technologies of the future.
For more than a century, America has produced breakthrough technologies and led the world in pioneering research and scientific discovery. Now, more than ever, we need to provide the vision and resources to maintain that legacy and lead the next generation of innovations. We are ready with a plan that is strategic, responsible, and realistic.
Just as the “Sputnik moment” spurred the United States to land Americans on the moon and inspired the next generation to study science and technology, I hope one positive outcome of COVID-19 is a revival of our nation’s technological capabilities. We owe the next generation of Americans nothing less.