To Win in the 21st Century, the 118th Congress Must Act on Science
Before the 118th Congress had even been sworn into office, a feeling of skepticism about operating under a divided government washed over Washington. While legislating with each party in control of one chamber is not easy, and partisan squabbles can get in the way of legislative momentum, progress is not impossible. Indeed, many new and returning members of Congress are looking harder than ever for vehicles to forge bipartisan headway. The future of our nation’s research enterprise would be a great place to start.
Last summer, spearheaded by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Todd Young, R-Ind., and other leaders, the 117th Congress passed the historic CHIPS and Science Act on a bipartisan basis. The measure authorizes nearly $170 billion in investments over five years for federal research agencies, including the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy. Although the omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2023 included a down payment for CHIPS and Science, the hard part — finding, agreeing to and appropriating a long-term funding package to put the car in drive — was left largely unfinished. Completing this work must be a top priority for Congress this year, or we risk ceding our competitive edge to emerging global powers like China.
At its peak following World War II, the U.S. government accounted for 69% of annual R&D spending internationally, but in 2020, that amount was down to just 30.7%. Though we have held our position at the front, the rate at which China is increasing its annual research spending is almost twice that of the United States, meaning we could be eclipsed in a matter of years. Further, the share of federally funded R&D has consistently declined since 2010, including the share of federally funded basic research, which dropped from 52% in 2010 to 41% in 2019. The impending debt ceiling adds another layer of urgency to this matter. We are already losing hard-fought scientific ground and running out of time to get it back, so any budgetary cuts cannot come at the expense of U.S. scientific advancement.
Since CHIPS and Science was passed, private sector entities have committed billions of dollars to support the bill’s primary aims, from turbocharging our nation’s production of semiconductors to developing STEM hotspots that attract talent outside of urban centers. In October, for example, Micron Technology — along with Schumer and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul — announced it would invest as much as $100 billion over the next 20 years to create a megafab semiconductor facility in central New York and partner with Syracuse University to train future technology workers. While this is encouraging, history has shown we cannot rely on the private sector alone to drive discoveries from basic research and secure the STEM workforce, especially if we want to remain the leader in global innovation.
The notion of setting the standard in cutting-edge research also motivates those on the ground doing the work. After researchers at Rutgers University announced they had successfully developed an improved genome map of one tuberculosis strain, Dr. David Alland, a co-author of the study, said, “We hope our [tool] provides researchers around the world with the information they need to create faster, more effective treatments and, ideally, a fully effective vaccine.” His team was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Just weeks ago, the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska, which partners with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture to create the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor map, signed an agreement with the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification to provide best practices on drought risk management across the globe.
For the better part of the last century, the U.S. science enterprise has been the envy of the world, spurred on by a federal government that understood the tremendous return on investment in research. Case in point — a report from The Science Coalition found 53 companies that spun out from federally funded university research contributed over $700 million to the U.S. GDP over a four-year period. This is the kind of spending the 118th Congress should feel confident about and, as the passage of the CHIPS and Science Act demonstrated, it is something both parties can get behind.
Leaders in both the House and Senate must work together this year to finalize an appropriations package that allocates new federal money to keep American science at the forefront. The next century of discovery depends on it.
Laura Kolton is executive director for Federal Government Engagement at Syracuse University and the president of The Science Coalition, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization comprising the nation’s leading public and private research universities. Kolton can be reached via LinkedIn.