Congress to put down payment on innovation in America

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SENATOR HARLEY KILGORE, the son of a West Virginia oil prospector who carried a horse chestnut tree for good luck, had a vision for American science. It was too dominated, he thought, by big business and the university system: the practical needs of the country were only an afterthought. In 1942, Kilgore proposed to create a federal bureaucracy, listening to the public, which would guide scientific research for the good of the country and distribute its profits geographically.

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Kilgore was opposed to Vannevar Bush (pictured above), who ruled America R&re during the Second World War. Bush believed that scientific research should be led by scientists themselves. In a report for the president titled “Science: The Endless Frontier,” Bush summed up his ideas. The government, he said, should fund research. But rather than directing this research towards the satisfaction of social needs, it should rather seek to advance science for itself: basic, not applied, science should be the main focus. Bush has won the day. The National Science Foundation (NSF), born in 1950, largely followed the principles he set out.

Kilgore is about to get his revenge. The Senate will probably soon pass the we Innovation and Competition Act, known until recently as the Endless Borders Act. Although the bill bears the name of the Bush report, it will steer US science policy in a more Kilgorean direction. It defines ten “key areas of technological interest”, such as artificial intelligence, biotechnology and advanced materials science, to which new research funding will be directed. It allocates funds to regional technology hubs spread across the country. And its objectives are clear: the objective, in Kilgorean fashion, is to “strengthen the competitive advantage and leadership of the United States in the global economy.”

When introduced in May 2020, the Endless Frontier Act planned to set aside $ 100 billion for a new Technology and Innovation Directorate within the NSF. This would have borrowed features from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the military research office responsible for conducting research that led to the internet, computer mouse and mRNA vaccines.

The law’s ambitions have since narrowed. Instead of the $ 100 billion, the NSFThe new technical direction of will get $ 4 billion. Some of the money went to the pork. A significant portion has been diverted to the national laboratories of the Ministry of Energy. Although more than $ 50 billion in funding will go to NSF, much of it replaces existing funding or goes to causes other than R&re, such as STEM education.

However, innovation experts do not recommend looking at a gift horse in the mouth. Federal spending on research increased by more than 1.2% GDP in 1976 to less than 0.8% today. As part of the federal budget, it has gone from 12% at its peak in the 1960s to 3%. Money set aside for R&re in the new bill will not reverse this slide. But the law will still provide substantial additional funding to the NSF: IIts budget for 2022 will be 27% higher than that of 2021 and will double over the next five years. Jonathan Gruber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, whose work helped spur legislation, sees the law as a “down payment” towards future innovation.

Others see it as a missed opportunity. Samuel Hammond of the Niskanen Center, a think tank, recognizes that the influx of money is precious, but yearns for what could have been. Science, he says, needs not only new funding, but also new institutions. Some researchers spend more than 40% of their time on administrative tasks such as writing grant applications. Studies have shown that grant evaluations are inconsistent and subjective. Since the number of grant applications has grown faster than available funding, high quality work can languish without funding. And although scientists tend to do their best in their youth, research grant recipients are getting older.

Mr Hammond believes the government agencies that fund research have become sclerotic: he sees a “culture of compliance” resulting from risk-averse leadership and wary of harsh congressional oversight. It’s a problem, says Benjamin Reinhardt, an independent researcher who has studied DARPA, because the big wins come from taking risks. “All the value,” he says, “is in the long tail.”

One of the reasons for creating new research funding institutions is to reverse the scientific process. Some economists have suggested prices for the big breakthroughs. New Zealand has experimented with grant funding lotteries. Two researchers, Adam Marblestone and Sam Rodriques, proposed focused research organizations, stand-alone research efforts focused on solving unique and well-defined scientific or technological problems.

Mr Gruber agrees that the existing funding agencies are too conservative and wants the bill to be bigger. But he thinks it’s a good start. The promotion of regional technology hubs, he says, could lead to a virtuous circle: once science and technology are no longer concentrated on the coasts, Americans could become more receptive to increasing R&re funding in the future. And, in picking out ten key tech areas to focus on, he sees the beginnings of a less hesitant approach to innovation. “You can call it picking winners,” he says. “I call it taking risks.”

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Political Science”



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