The Next 75 Years of US Science and Innovation Policy: An Introduction
In the future, science and technology will be called upon to address many challenges, from pandemics to climate change to food and water shortages to crises that cannot be foreseen today. Scientific research must be structured to meet society’s needs.
Since the end of World War II, a particular conception of the relationship between scientific research and societal benefits has dominated US science and technology policy. As laid out in Vannevar Bush’s seminal 1945 report, Science, the Endless Frontier, the federal government, by funding basic research at the nation’s universities and independent research institutions, would generate both new scientific knowledge and the skilled practitioners needed to apply that knowledge to societal problems, thereby ensuring “our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.”
The vision at the heart of Science, the Endless Frontier—that society would benefit from new knowledge and should therefore support the generation of that knowledge—has been abundantly realized. Research conducted by America’s universities and independent research institutions on behalf of the federal government has opened pathways to improved living standards, public health, and national security not only in the United States but around the world. However, science and the broader society in which science is embedded have changed radically over the past three-quarters of a century. Even as new scientific discoveries and new and innovative technologies have spurred economic growth and reduced poverty worldwide, wealth, learning, and opportunity remain available to far too small a proportion of humanity. The development of new medical treatments and procedures has extended life spans but has not prevented massive inequities in health care and health outcomes, as has been starkly revealed during the current COVID-19 pandemic. A central debate in the years after World War II—how best to structure scientific research to meet human needs—remains a work in progress in this world of accelerating change.
The 75th anniversary of Science, the Endless Frontier, combined with the particularly complex and turbulent events of recent years, has created a valuable opportunity to consider the science and technology policies we will need for the next 75 years. Scientific research today is much more complex, multidisciplinary, collaborative, and transnational—and often occurs at a much more rapid pace—than in the past. Researchers are studying a much broader range of issues, including problems that science-based technologies have exacerbated. China now spends approximately the same amount on research and development as the United States and substantially more than the countries of the European Union (see NSF data). Today, new knowledge travels rapidly around the world to institutions and to individuals who are ready, capable, and eager to apply that knowledge. The challenge for national governments is to develop and implement policies that enable countries to benefit from the assimilation of new knowledge to enhance productivity, national well-being, and new ways of doing things.
Universities and the federal funding of academic research are adapting to these and other changes, yet they still bear many hallmarks of an earlier age. Much of the research and teaching done in colleges and universities still occurs within disciplinary silos and adheres to the single principal investigator model, though this model can and does contribute ideas that serve as seeds for larger, more robust collaborative research efforts. Professors train PhD students to replace themselves despite a paucity of jobs and opportunities in academia. And an educational system designed to produce new scientists and engineers does far too little to help students in other fields gain an understanding and appreciation of science and the methods of science.
Science and technology will be called upon to address many challenges during the next 75 years and beyond, from future pandemics to climate change to food and water shortages to crises that cannot be foreseen today. At the same time, the great accomplishments of the past 75 years in extending life spans, reducing poverty, avoiding another world war, feeding a growing population, and connecting the world electronically provide a solid foundation on which to build. We will need every bit of knowledge, reason, and creativity we can muster to overcome the challenges of the twenty-first century. This means we must draw upon all of the determination and ingenuity available in society today. We must find better mechanisms for incorporating the public’s outlooks and needs into research, while also reducing barriers to participation in the science and technology enterprise, to capitalize on the diversity of ideas and talent available across the globe. Nevertheless, we have every reason to believe that the human story will be one of continued progress made possible, in large part, by the application of new discoveries in science and technology to help solve human and societal problems.
A Guide to the Future of US Science and Innovation Policy
Over the next year, Issues in Science and Technology, with support from The Kavli Foundation, will publish a series of articles chosen for their potential to shape the next 75 years of US science and innovation policy. Under the series title “The Next 75 Years of Science Policy,” the articles will appear first online in a dedicated space at Issues.org. A diverse group of authors will explore what is working well, what is not, and what needs to change. A special print edition of Issues in 2022 will compile selected articles from the series to inform the future of science and innovation policymaking.
This series of articles appears against the backdrop of many recent reports on US science, technology, and innovation policy. While these reports differ in their emphases, they exhibit several common themes designed to steer science and technology policy in more productive directions. Ten reports spanning three years, 2019 through 2021, are exemplars; their recommendations are shown in Table 1. The degree of commonality across these ten reports is remarkable.
Table 1. Common themes present in ten recent reports on US science, technology, and innovation policy published between 2019 and 2021.
A Renewed Emphasis on Outcomes
Perhaps the most common of these themes is the call for much greater attention to accelerating the generation of new knowledge as well as the application of that knowledge to human needs. As the 2020 report Competing in the Next Economy: The New Age of Innovation from the National Commission on Innovation & Competitiveness Frontiers put it, “There are deficiencies in the U.S. innovation ecosystem, barriers in developing and scaling new technologies, too many Americans locked out of the innovation sector due to inadequate opportunity, education and skills, and insufficient U.S. leadership in the international developments that are setting the stage and rules for the next global economy.”
To better assimilate new knowledge into products and processes that solve human problems, many reports have called for increased federal funding of what is variously called use-inspired basic research, outcomes-oriented research, needs-oriented research, societally responsive research, applied research, and translational research. The shared element is that such research not only increases scientific knowledge but is linked from the outset to practical issues. Such research, according to the 2019 report Public Impact Research: Engaged Universities Making the Difference by the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, “clearly and directly connects the investment of taxpayer dollars to public benefit.”
Of course the line between basic research carried out to understand nature and research motivated by the need for solutions to practical problems is blurred and changes over time. An outstanding recent example is the development of highly innovative vaccines to counter the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Less than a year elapsed between the genetic sequencing of the virus and the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization of vaccines that use messenger RNA to generate antiviral immune responses.
The long-standing debate over how to direct and structure research funding raises fundamental questions: How can increased funding for research best promote synergies between the advancement of fundamental understanding and the solution of practical problems? What institutional arrangements and incentives have proven most effective in achieving such synergies? How should public sector and private sector efforts best be linked for mutual benefit?
Greater Funding for Research and Development
Another common theme of recent reports is that the federal government is spending too little on research and development. The 2020 report The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science & Engineering from the Committee on New Models for US Science and Technology Policy recommended that the federal government increase its funding of basic research from 0.2 percent of the US gross domestic product (GDP) to 0.3 percent. The 2020 Science and Technology Action Plan from the Science & Technology Action Committee called for doubling total federal expenditures on research and development from 0.7 percent to 1.4 percent of GDP over five years. Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge, a 2019 report from the Council on Foreign Relations, urged federal funding for research and development to be returned to its historical average as a proportion of GDP, implying an increase from about $150 billion to $230 billion annually (in 2018 dollars).
Economic analyses indicate that these funding increases would more than pay for themselves in economic growth, public health, and defense preparedness. Nevertheless, the funding increases proposed in recent reports are dauntingly large. Boosting federal R&D from 0.7 to 1.4 percent of GDP would increase federal expenditures by about $150 billion per year.
Policies designed to maximize the advantage to the United States of research funding would look different today than they did in 1945. What is the optimal size of overall research funding in the United States, and what proportions of that funding should come from government, industry, philanthropies, and university endowments? How can research funding from government be increased despite competition from other priorities? How does the science enterprise need to evolve and adapt, so funding increases translate into desired long-term outcomes?
Balancing the Risks and Benefits of International Collaboration
The United States has benefited greatly by fostering openness and international collaboration in science. The openness of the US innovation system has enabled researchers to stay at the frontiers of knowledge and has attracted to the United States international students and researchers who have made major contributions to the economy and society. The 2020 report America and the International Future of Science from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences states the common theme: “The benefits of international scientific collaboration for the United States and the world are substantial and growing and far outweigh the risks they can present.”
But national security and intellectual property interests require that some controls be exerted on the international flows of information and people. As other countries—China in particular—have greatly increased R&D funding, science and technology capabilities, and research outputs, the United States is no longer in a dominant position. While US policymakers have a few options for influencing the actions of other countries, it is far more important that they turn their attention to determining how to “strengthen U.S. innovation capabilities in a robust and sustained way,” as stated in the 2020 report Meeting the China Challenge: A New American Strategy for Technology Competition from the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
Global competition for talent in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the so-called STEM subjects, and increased difficulties in securing visas are also making it harder for the United States to attract international researchers. How can US policies best balance collaboration with competition? How can the United States continue to attract the best and brightest from abroad but remain secure? What are the best ways to control the flow of sensitive information without unduly restricting the openness on which scientific research depends?
Developing a Twenty-First Century STEM Workforce
Part of the social contract described in Science, the Endless Frontier is that federal support of university research would “encourage and enable a larger number of young men and women of ability to take up science as a career.” The successful achievement of this goal was one of the greatest legacies of Bush’s report. But the link between research funding and the preparation of a skilled workforce has weakened. Other countries channel much greater percentages of their young people into the study of STEM subjects.
Attracting, retaining, and developing more US STEM students require a wide-ranging and comprehensive approach, including enhanced educational and training program design from childhood on, as well as attention to undergraduates and graduates through academic and career advising, mentoring, research and internship opportunities, financial support for students going into high-demand sectors, and transitional programs into professions. In general, STEM education needs to become more individualized, student-centered, and holistic, rather than primarily representing the interests of the institutions involved.
The need to individualize can be seen particularly in the need to better support individuals who use science and technology in their jobs but do not have a bachelor’s degree, a “critical, but often overlooked segment of our STEM-capable workforce,” according to the 2019 report The Skilled Technical Workforce: Crafting America’s Science & Engineering Enterprise from the National Science Board.
Likewise, at the graduate level, according to the 2018 report Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, universities need to “shift from the current system that focuses primarily on the needs of institutions of higher education and those of the research enterprise itself to one that is student centered, placing greater emphasis and focus on graduate students as individuals with diverse needs and challenges.”
A further challenge, as underscored by the National Science Board’s Vision 2030, is that the members of groups underrepresented in STEM often do not get sufficient career development and opportunities, leading to marginalization and attrition. As The Perils of Complacency report observed, “If not addressed, this failure to attract historically underrepresented groups will continue to further hamper U.S. efforts to strengthen America’s STEM workforce.”
The changes that are required at the university level are mirrored in structural and pedagogical barriers encountered by younger learners. Today, STEM subjects continue to be taught in K–12 and entry-level undergraduate classes mostly as collections of isolated facts with little real-world context. Classes typically fail to convey the rich interconnections among STEM subjects and between these subjects and the rest of human knowledge. Students, typically working individually rather than in the teams that characterize so much STEM activity, get little exposure to the creativity and innovation at the heart of these fields. They are more likely to get a sense of the dynamism of STEM subjects from experiential activities such as science clubs, math teams, and robotics competitions. Projects such as the Association of American Universities’ Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative and the National Academies’ Reshaping Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century have proposed cultural changes to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning and to prepare students to translate their knowledge into impact in multiple careers, respectively.
A major concern, reflected in many reports, is the need to attract more underrepresented groups, including women, to the STEM workforce by reforming the culture and structures of educational institutions. Among them is a recent call from a National Academies committee, in its 2020 report Promising Practices for Addressing the Underrepresentation of Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine, for “systemic change in the STEMM [STEM plus Medicine] enterprise in an effort to mitigate structural inequities, bias, discrimination, and harassment that a substantial body of literature demonstrates significantly undermines the education and careers of women.” There are also calls to address, at a fundamental level, the systemic barriers and intolerable behavior that lead to racism and sexism (as discussed in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s report Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine).
What policy apparatuses can we use to incentivize, encourage, and retain all talent in STEM? What institutional changes are needed to ensure the workforce can develop needed skills and remain responsive to the changing needs of employers?
Engaging the Public in Research
Despite the centrality of technology and the knowledge enterprise to American life, the public has few ways of influencing either applied or basic research agendas. Vast numbers of citizens are left out of the process of making decisions about everything from how research funding is allocated, to which issues are studied, to how new technologies are regulated—a problem that is particularly acute for disadvantaged groups and communities. While Science, the Endless Frontier implied that knowledge flows one way, from creators to recipients, we now know that knowledge creation and knowledge use are tightly interwoven and interconnected processes.
As Cristin Dorgelo, then with the Association of Science and Technology Centers, observed in The Endless Frontier: The Next 75 Years in Science, engaging the public in science requires building an infrastructure to harness the tools and the processes of answering questions and applying those answers in a way that addresses community priorities, not just the priorities of those inside the system. These tools and processes range widely, from developing scientific literacy, to citizens commissions, to laboratory open houses, to much greater outreach by government agencies.
The American Academy of Arts & Sciences’ 2020 report The Public Face of Science in America: Priorities for the Future suggests several mechanisms to improve the connection between science and the public, including engaging the social and behavioral sciences in the effort. The practices of researchers also need to change to provide for transparency, trust, and the meaningful incorporation of public input into research.
How can the public provide feedback in the priorities of scientific research, including basic science? What mechanisms can be instituted to better understand the implications of science’s applications in society? When might public engagement be valuable for actually helping to conceptualize research questions and choose methodologies? How can policy, such as criteria for awarding federal research funds, be used as a lever to encourage and support scientists to more meaningfully connect with the public?
A Groundwork for Analysis
Science, the Endless Frontier appeared at a time of great optimism but also great uncertainty. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occurred a few weeks after the report’s release, ending World War II but radically transforming the environment in which future scientific research and technology development would occur. US troops, still scattered around the world, were beginning to come home, but new threats from the Soviet Union and its allies were already emerging.
Today’s historical circumstances are vastly different yet no less precarious—and, in new ways, equally promising. The COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences of structural racism and pervasive inequities, new international tensions, the gathering crisis of climate change, and deep social divisions pose great threats but also provide unprecedented opportunities to disrupt the status quo and pioneer new approaches. Science and innovation policies will have a great influence on the issues that confront us. As such, those policies need to be guided by the best possible thought and analysis. The current tension between the potential of science and technology and the societal problems we face requires active deliberation among all stakeholders. We have laid out some of those issues here and have referenced recent studies that are germane to the issues at hand. The forthcoming series of articles in Issues will extend the discussion. We invite you to join us in exploring these issues and sharing policy ideas that will fuel our science and technology engine for the next 75 years and beyond.