Collaborate for the Future
The military plays an outsized role in US research and development, but the costs are rarely acknowledged. Shifting from a competitive model of innovation to a collaborative one would bring benefits—and security—to the United States and the world.
National science policy reflects a country’s sense of its internal and external challenges and its place in the world. Since the end of World War II, US science policy has embodied the view of generations of American policymakers that the United States is, to use the Cold War idiom, “the leader of the free world.” Over time, the military competition implied in that phrase became economic competition, not only between West and East but also among countries constituting the free world. US leaders have enjoyed representing the world’s “biggest” and “strongest” economy and use anxiety about other nations “catching up” to push particular policies.
But the post-World War II global order has crumbled, and it isn’t clear what a new world order will look like—or whether today’s turbulence will persist. To imagine the role the US science and technology enterprise could have in shaping global conditions in the future, it is necessary to reconsider the competitive framing of these policies.
The first aspect to reconsider is treating research and innovation policies as national endeavors. National governments strive to provide the conditions that support well-being for their populations and economic success for their enterprises. In this view, investments in research and innovation must be oriented to benefits that will accrue within national boundaries. But in the early twenty-first century, the idea of national boundaries themselves is beginning to look quaint. Problems including COVID-19, mpox, climate change, supply chain disruptions, and even disinformation easily transcend lines on a map.
Today, most of the important systems of human interaction stretch across national boundaries. Humanity is so embedded in densely interwoven systems of production, communication, health, and environment that national policymakers are forced to consider what their constituents give as well as take in networks that extend well beyond their control. In the postwar era, well-being was pursued as a largely national project; that goal now needs to be pursued globally. The question for national policymakers is how they will interact within global systems, rather than how to dominate them. The current reality of systemic interconnection requires not only different frameworks for analysis, but also different ways of evaluating benefits and trade-offs. Clinging to the nation-level framing has a prominent opportunity cost: the benefits that come from global collaboration.
I argue here that, if policymakers are to achieve the goal of sustainable well-being in the United States, US science policy needs to shift its way of thinking away from competition and toward collaboration. Many of the systems in which the United States is embedded globally are science- and technology-intensive. In considering the options for the next 75 years of science policy, it is thus appropriate to ask how the United States depends on those systems and how it can maintain domestic well-being through cooperation within these systems. An assessment of the current system configuration and global circumstances yields insight into trends the United States can influence—and those it cannot—with its domestic science policy.
From the outset, however, policymakers need to acknowledge that science and technology do not determine the characteristics of these systems. Global decision processes are the result of political, military, and financial relationships at different scales, while technological prowess and scientific sophistication influence a nation’s capabilities and options but do not determine actions or outcomes. At the moment, many collaborative global efforts to solve problems appear stalled, and authoritarian powers are on the rise, in no small part through their application of technologies. The major obstacles to shared human development over the coming decades are likely to be located in human rather than technological systems.
Military research as an engine of innovation
One direct outcome of the competitive, nationalized framing of US innovation policy is that military spending on research and development exceeds R&D budgets for all other purposes. Despite this fact, the enormity of the US military R&D effort is one of the quietest topics in national and international research and innovation policy discourse.
The United States spends more on its military than any other country: $801 billion in 2021 or 38% of the world total; for 2023, the US defense budget is more than those of the next 10 countries combined. The drive for technological superiority in weapons and intelligence systems pulls with it enormous amounts of spending. In fiscal year 2021, the Department of Defense budget for research, development, test, and evaluation was $106.6 billion, up more than 79% since 2013. Proposed spending on national defense R&D was $75.6 billion for 2021, over half of all federal research and development spending. This was twice as much as proposed 2021 federal spending on R&D in health ($37.5 billion) and dramatically more than energy ($2.1 billion) or natural resources and environment ($1.8 billion).
In an earlier essay for Issues, the science and technology policy scholar William Bonvillian identifies military R&D as an implicit industrial policy, but it remains difficult to quantify the true impact of this policy choice. Indeed, a recent study shows that military investment increases even private activity in the industries where the funds are spent, influencing priorities directly as well as indirectly. Industries that produce weapons and surveillance get a boost; those that increase health for babies do not. Ingenuity goes to better tanks, not better schools. Tax revenues, which could be used, say, to create markets for cleaner energy, instead are consumed protecting fossil fuel supplies.
The use of the military as an engine of innovation has important opportunity costs as well. First, because no other countries spend so much on military R&D, there are fewer opportunities for collaboration and joint learning stemming from the military spending. Among the member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the United States accounts for more than 80% of total government military R&D funding. The United States also spends a larger percentage of its gross domestic product on military R&D—nearly 70% more than the next highest OECD country. The amounts spent on military R&D thus inhibit the United States from fully participating in the international networks of knowledge on which innovation and economic growth increasingly depend.
A second cost of the military model is that it has locked society out of discussing appropriate goals for innovation and their societal benefits. Military innovation is by its nature secretive, and it reinforces a sense that innovation is a “black box”: taxpayers pour money in one end, and out the other pop game-changing technologies (GPS, Velcro, etc.). In the fields of health, food, or environment, the mechanisms that connect research with its benefits can be described and evaluated publicly; in military research, the opposite is true.
Finally, the militarization of US technology has had spillover effects in American society that may run counter to the idea of well-being, or even basic safety. The weapons industry is interlocked with law enforcement and the prison industry, with products developed for military use being applied in civilian contexts. For example, Cadre Holdings, which supplies the Department of Defense with smoke grenades, pepper spray, and body armor, also manufactures tear gas weapons for law enforcement, including the US Border Patrol, prison authorities, and police departments across the United States.
Both military-industrial and prison-industrial complexes feed on fear. Over two million people were in jail or prison in the United States in 2019, about 25% of the world’s total incarcerated population. Neither complex delivers security: if prisons made us safer, America would be the safest country in the world. US citizens certainly want to live in a peaceful world. But the price they pay domestically for overgrown military systems displaces other investments and makes it difficult to achieve other public goals.
Collaboration in communications technology
A collaborative, rather than competitive, paradigm for innovation policy is not only possible; it has been wildly successful. There is no more global system than telecommunications—which combines computers, wireless phones, and infrastructure on land and in space—and American firms have been at the forefront of its development. The growth of communications technology thus serves as a model for one way the US economy can interact productively with the world. Businesses have grown. Lives have been transformed. Competition has opened.
Rather than being siloed in military applications, communications companies have taken military innovations such as digital computing and satellites and embedded them in socially driven uses. Computing was born in the military realm and then moved into business, household, and individual use. In the meantime, telephones became wireless and mobile, as well as ever smaller and more powerful, until they too merged into the tablets and smartphones that so many people carry with them today. The infrastructure to support these systems also evolved rapidly, from cable to wireless, with satellite capabilities added to the mix. The result has been an explosion of social interconnection, accompanied by innovation that has widespread benefits.
Households around the world now have instant access to enormous amounts of information. The costs of staying in touch with others have dropped dramatically, and newer modes of interaction such as text messaging and social media are now widespread. Particularly importantly, information technology and telecommunications innovations have reached into the lives of the world’s poorest households. Nestled among the fortunes made in the industry—and they are prodigious—are spaces for bringing financial services to the unbanked through mobile banking, inexpensive pathways for remittances from people in rich countries to their relatives in poor ones, and current market information to small farmers in remote rural areas. In short, these technologies have made a plethora of contributions to the reduction in world poverty in recent decades. These benefits only came about through an international ecosystem of small and large enterprises engaging at multiple scales and with a variety of objectives and levels of openness—in contrast to the secrecy of military efforts.
The telecommunications example illustrates that intellectual property provisions are a key element of future innovation policy. Ownership and control have been important objectives for some US industries in intellectual property policy. These need to be shifted into a stronger concept of investing in know-how in global business. New enterprises in Africa or Latin America, for example, would buy and use new production technologies more effectively if local researchers shared in their development. Both the global North and South would be better off.
Contradictions in health innovation
The way that such interconnected systems succeed and fail can be seen in the second largest area of federal R&D spending in the United States: health, which had a proposed R&D budget of $37 billion for 2021. America has built the world’s premier biomedical research institution in the National Institutes of Health, which supports a knowledge base that forms the environment not only for domestic medical care but also for pharmaceutical and medical equipment industries that operate globally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Food and Drug Administration, leading institutions of public health and pharmaceutical and medical device regulation, operate very much in a globally networked research space where they gain as well as contribute knowledge.
However, the American experience with COVID-19 vividly illustrated both the strengths and weaknesses of that knowledge configuration. There was never really a possibility that the virus would remain confined to its origins; contemporary life is just too mobile for that. As the disease became a pandemic, a global knowledge network quickly sprang into action. A vaccine approach that had already been under development was brought into play in record time, boosted by massive public spending and competition among companies across the rich world.
At that point, contradictions in the larger networks and systems of public health began to appear. Older adults in wealthy nations were fully vaccinated and getting boosters while other countries were still waiting for vaccines. Even within wealthy nations, notably the United States, vaccine access and uptake varied. As of January 11, 2023, only 69.1% of the US population of all ages has completed the primary series of COVID-19 vaccines, with the lowest percentage by racial/ethnic group for Black Americans. Domestic and international organizations attempted to expand vaccine availability and distribution, but have seen limited success in their efforts. While over 200 countries have at least some vaccine access, vaccination rates are in the single digits in some places, even as new COVID-19 variants emerge and move quickly around the globe.
The pandemic experience thus reflects the contradictions that public policy scholar Shobita Parthasarathy describes in assessing today’s health innovation system. Health outcomes in the United States do not measure up to biomedical research spending because the system fails to define health appropriately and to deliver the right services. And since biomedical research in the United States is oriented to the health challenges of relatively affluent people, America’s huge research investment skews the reward system for health researchers in other countries, even where the challenges are very different. Furthermore, aggressive protection of the interests of pharmaceutical firms in international trade agreements can create barriers to diffusion of essential medicines.
Contradictions and tensions are prominent in this area. On the one hand, US biomedical research assertively shares knowledge globally. On the other, US industry equally assertively privatizes the innovation that grows from that knowledge. The nationalist values expressed in US science, technology, and innovation policy applaud the privatization (“capturing the benefits”), while the human health commitments of the biomedical research community strain in the opposite direction. This tension must be resolved. Markets for drugs and medical devices will grow if the economies of poor countries improve. For that to happen, people there need to be nourished and healthy. A virtuous circle is possible.
A need for global approaches to environmental innovation
The vexing difficulty of addressing global systems when innovation is pursued through a competitive national lens can be seen clearly in global climate policy. Climate-warming carbon dioxide emissions continue to grow despite the scientific evidence of their longer-term harms.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change process, which brings together a global community of scientists to compile and analyze the growing knowledge base for decisionmaking, started in 1988 and has produced five reports that assess and report the status of climate research, modeling, and monitoring. The scientific community was capable of acting globally in response to a planet-wide problem, but decisionmakers have mostly acted at the local level, blinkered by competitive concerns. Each nation’s work to constrain carbon emissions appears to be a limited one, a zero-sum choice about maintaining current economic advantages and continue to compete with other economies.
Although they have acted individually, 23 wealthy countries are responsible for producing half of the planet’s historical greenhouse gas emissions, leaving poorer countries vulnerable to their increasing effects. This system of unequal contributions and unequal costs cannot be undone by traditional nationalistic or competitive actions. Creating an innovation system that can generate and transfer knowledge and technology between the rich and the poor, the producers and the vulnerable, requires a far broader commitment of economic, political, and social resources than we currently see.
Inspiration for a more globalized, collaborative approach to innovation can be found in the story of solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies, which are now able to produce electricity more cheaply than even the cheapest fossil fuel plants. After the private Bell Labs invented the first PV cell in 1954, the US military funded development of the technology for the purpose of powering satellites. Over the next 40 years, a global mixture of public and private investment increased the efficiency of the cells, eventually deploying them at a scale that enabled learning. By 2019, India was producing the world’s cheapest solar electricity by installing PV panels made in China, addressing the country’s energy poverty.
Innovation as a tool for global prosperity and security
The connections between innovation and global inequality should by now be clear. When a country’s leaders view the world economy as a race to be won, they are rarely concerned that laggards in the global distribution of income hold everyone back. Hunger, disease, and lack of education anywhere mean less peace and prosperity everywhere. Even as surging middle classes in China and India have begun to reduce global inequality, the bottom of the global distribution remains stubbornly stuck. What’s more, middle classes in the global North have lost ground, contributing to political challenges in these countries. Over the next 75 years, I do not believe it is in the best interests of US taxpayers to continue to expand the gap between poor and rich countries. US science, technology, and innovation policy could be a powerful tool to promote prosperity for Americans by promoting it for everyone.
Today, rich countries set the rules of the game, aided by the multinational corporations based in them, and the values of both need to change to create a more secure world. In technology-based industries as well as international negotiations, the United States must learn to collaborate. Sharing the science knowledge base is an important part of that transition. Greater investments in open science, more platforms to work on global solutions, and expanded business models that enable corporations to co-evolve a broader view of economic prosperity: these are shifts in research priorities that will keep American children and grandchildren safe.
Another important shift would be reorienting technological investment away from defense and toward collaborative efforts. Investing in technologies in which American skills complement those of the global South, such as nano-technologies for water systems, could eventually yield the sort of step-change innovation that previous investments in military technology such as GPS have wrought. Similarly, corporations working to create increasing economic interdependence, much the way Microsoft intends to create a global platform for small business growth, could create a world that is more secure and less militarized.
Seventy-five years from now, Americans could enjoy their current benefits and more, but in a world that will be more secure because so many others have those benefits as well.