Science & Tech

It’s Time to Reverse the Country’s Scientific Slide

(Pixabay)
To stay on top, the U.S. must subsidize more foundational research and reform education, immigration, and trade.

The United States is an innovative nation. The nation’s founders put a premium on inventiveness. They thought so highly of the role science and technology play that they wrote it into the Constitution, saying the government should “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.”

That enterprising spirit served the nation well. Robert Fulton, Thomas Edison, Nicola Tesla, Steve Jobs, Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, George Washington Carver, and James D. Watson are but a few of a long list of scientists and innovators who were born or became Americans. We take it for granted that the United States will always be on top of the scientific heap, yet while we are among the world’s leaders, we are being eclipsed.

According to the World Intellectual Property Organization, China is now the leader in patent applications, with more than double the number of U.S. applications in 2018. The news for theoretical research also looks grim. According to the 2017 Nature Index, the U.S. still leads in foundational science, but we won’t for long. Contributions to major scientific journals by American scientists are slowing as China’s rise. If these trends continue, China’s scientific output will overtake that of the U.S. by 2025.

America’s innovation slide should cause our leaders to sound the alarm. Fortunately, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee this week is convening a hearing, “Losing Ground: U.S. Competitiveness in Critical Technologies.”

According to a recent report by the bipartisan Aspen Cybersecurity Group, technological and scientific innovation isn’t just an economic issue; innovation has national-security and geopolitical implications. “Will America lead the technology that secures Americans?” Lisa Monaco, co-chair of the Aspen group, asked Axios. “Will American values be reflected in the technologies of the future?”

This is exactly the sort of question that America’s leaders should be asking. Actions the government took following World War II — investments in research, human capital, and immigration — allowed American innovation to thrive as the rest of the world rebuilt from the great war, the Aspen report says.

But the very policies that helped America achieve technological leadership have been undermined. America’s competitors in innovation have also invested in their infrastructure since the end of World War II, and it’s easy to see why other countries are passing the United States.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The U.S. can maintain its technological and scientific leadership, but we’ll need to double down on our bet on foundational research. Inventions such as the smartphone or immunotherapy drugs don’t happen in a vacuum. They depend on foundational research that the private sector will not underwrite. Foundational research often has little application in the business environment or offers insufficient short-term benefits to maximize shareholder value in the minds of many investors. Research into DNA or radio waves may not look like it will turn a profit, but that research is the foundation on which the great inventions are built.

Whether it is due to lack of vision or competing budgetary pressures, current leaders struggle to make the needed investments. While the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is promoting visionary efforts as it convenes leaders in emerging areas such as AI, quantum computing, and 5G, our investments in foundational research are not keeping pace. China doubled its foundational-research funding in 2017. Japan, South Korea, Israel, and Finland all spent more than the U.S. on research and development when measured as a percentage of GDP.

The United States became a global leader in R&D in the 20th century by funding nearly 70 percent of annual global R&D following World War II, but according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. share of global R&D funding fell to 28 percent in 2013. This is a trend that needs to be reversed, as the U.S. share should approach 50 percent, the nation’s average until the 1980s.

Spending on foundational research isn’t the only policy the government needs to change. We need to pay attention to the way education, immigration, and trade affect innovation.

Our education and innovation priorities need to be aligned. Spending on education needs to rise, and not just for science, technology, engineering, and math. The wide availability of higher education relevant to the 20th-century economy was one of the reasons the U.S. economy flourished after WWII. It’s a lesson we need to remember: Education is key. We should ensure that higher education is available to all Americans and made more relevant for the 21st century.

In all the controversy that surrounds immigration, it’s easy for us to forget how important it has been for innovation. Einstein, Tesla, and Fermi were all immigrants to America, as are Sergey Brin, Elon Musk, and Pierre Omidyar. According to Stanford Business School, immigrants are responsible for more than 30 percent of American innovation since 1976. If America truly has an innovation “manifest destiny,” immigrants are a driving factor behind it. Our immigration policy needs to reflect that.

To compete in the innovation marketplace with the rest of the world, we also must recognize the role open markets play. The U.S. needs to avoid protectionist policies that unnecessarily stifle trade and weaken the economy while ensuring that our valuable intellectual property is protected. The government also should ensure that export controls over technology do not disadvantage R&D and investment in the United States.

We face a risky world. For the country to remain strong and safe, we need to recognize the role scientific research plays. National security isn’t just about who has the biggest guns. Machine learning, for example, can enable high degrees of automation in cyber defense.

America’s leaders today should remember the good advice of our founding fathers and reflect with smart policymaking that the U.S.’s global competitiveness, national security, and economic growth and stability at home depend on our ability to maintain leadership in innovation. If we don’t step up the pace, at the end of the next decade we’ll find ourselves far behind.

Bruce Mehlman is a founding co-chairman of the D.C.-based Internet Innovation Alliance (IIA) and served the U.S. Department of Commerce as assistant secretary for technology policy under President George W. Bush.

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