While those paying attention to Capitol Hill recently have been focused on the massive infrastructure and budget packages, Congress has also been making progress on another bill of equal significance. If Congress can put that measure over the finish line, the U.S. will be in a much better position to compete with China and to assure our prosperity and security for decades to come.
The measure — known in the Senate as the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act — would significantly increase the federal investment in research, would target more research dollars toward solving specific technological and societal problems, and would help speed the transition of ideas from the lab to the marketplace. The House and Senate have passed different versions of the legislation — both by wide, bipartisan margins — and negotiations that are about to begin will determine whether the U.S. will have the scientific wherewithal it needs for the years ahead.
Flexible, thoughtful talks ought to be able to produce an agreement that can be signed into law. The House and Senate approaches are much more alike than they are different, and too much is at stake to let this opportunity pass. Both bills would create a new directorate at the National Science Foundation — an agency that has been funding research at universities since 1950.
There are two sets of issues that must be resolved — both of which relate to longstanding debates about the role of the federal government in research.
The first concerns the purpose and nature of the research the federal government should fund. The Senate legislation makes maintaining U.S. competitiveness the overriding goal for the new directorate; the House allows work on a wider set of problems. The final bill should make competitiveness at least one focus for the new directorate. Competitiveness is, in part, a technological problem that can be addressed through targeted research investments in basic science. Moreover, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to solve any other issues, like inequity and climate change, if we are in relative economic decline.
How could a new research program best deal with competitiveness? By pursuing a kind of research federal programs have often neglected called use-inspired basic research. This means building research around solving specific problems — but problems that require breakthroughs in basic understanding of natural phenomena. A classic example is the research that led to the creation of semiconductors — the circuits that are the basis of our phones and computers. That research was designed to replace vacuum tubes, which were fragile and ungainly, but it required such fundamental new knowledge that the work earned a Nobel Prize.
This kind of research is different from basic, curiosity-driven research — research driven just by the desire to understand the world better. That kind of work is essential, but it should not be the sole purpose of federal funding or university lab work. Use-inspired research is also different from applied or translational research — the work to turn the knowledge we have already at hand into useful processes and products. That work is also critical, but much of it should be left to industry to fund and to carry out.
The second set of issues relates to where federally funded research should occur. Since at least the end of World War II, concerns have been raised that research is concentrated in too few locations, mostly on the coasts. The concern has intensified as economic growth has become more closely tied to being near leading science and technology centers.
Both bills take aim at this issue. The Senate approach is to require fully one-fifth of the National Science Foundation’s money to be distributed through a program that funds work only in states that have not been the top winners of competitive federal research grants. The House approach is to try to build expertise at particular schools that have research programs but are not research leaders, including schools with large minority enrollments.
Mixing these paths in a balanced way could help create centers of excellence in specific fields throughout the country and do so without losing the boost the U.S. as a whole gets by having a few dozen universities that are world leaders in research. The metric needs to be whether the distribution will strengthen U.S. research and prosperity around the country, not just whether everyone is getting some money.
Congress has worked through these issues before when it created the federal agencies, like the National Science Foundation, that have underwritten so much of the research that has kept the U.S. prosperous and secure since 1945. But today we face urgent new challenges, including a rising China. Congress needs to rise to the occasion — as it did after World War II and after the launch of Sputnik — and make an investment in new institutions that can ensure continued U.S. leadership.