The Hill: Lucas: A path forward for the future of American science and technology

June 15, 2021
In The News

The United States has long been the world leader in science and technology. That’s no accident — it’s the result of sustained investment in our research enterprise. But we’ve let our commitment slip and we’ve lost focus on the importance of scientific and technological leadership. It’s time we redouble our efforts and reinvest in American science and technology.

Today, the House Science Committee is taking up two bipartisan bills to do just that.

America’s scientific and technological competitiveness has been my highest priority as ranking member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. It’s gratifying to see that there is now momentum on both sides of the aisle in the House and Senate for legislation to secure our global science and technology leadership.

The need to act is best captured by two data points. First, as much as 85 percent of America’s long-term economic growth is due to advances in science and technology. There’s a direct connection between investment in research and development and job growth here at home.

Second, China increased public R&D by 56 percent between 2011 and 2016, but U.S. investment in the same period fell by 12 percent in absolute terms. China has likely surpassed the U.S. in total R&D spending and — through both investment and theft — is working to overtake us as the global leader in science and technology.

America’s continued scientific leadership requires a comprehensive and strategic approach to research and development that provides long-term increased investment and stability across the research ecosystem. It also requires inter-agency collaboration and public-private partnerships. And it must focus on evolving technologies that are crucial to our national and economic security, like semiconductors and quantum sciences.

House Science Committee Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and I have taken a deliberative and bipartisan approach to revitalizing American research. We’re voting on two bills in our committee today to comprehensively fund the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Science. The NSF for the Future Act and the DOE Science for the Future Act together are a sustainable strategy for American progress that comprehensively scales up our research enterprise. Rather than throwing one-time money at NSF and DOE or pitting them against each other for funding, we’re investing in the programs that work and creating new ones where needed. This is the best approach to strengthening American competitiveness.

In the NSF for the Future Act, we put a great deal of care into crafting a new directorate that improves NSF’s ability to advance fundamental research, without duplicating or seeking to replace the missions of other federal research agencies. Our proposed Directorate for Science and Engineering Solutions takes the basic research funded by NSF and helps apply those discoveries to solving national challenges from cybersecurity to climate change. We also propose a funding profile for the new directorate that is practical, sustainable, and in balance with the rest of the Foundation.

We need cutting-edge facilities for our federal scientists and researchers from academia and industry to conduct big science — research that can’t be done in individual labs and requires massive equipment that industry cannot provide, like advanced light sources and neutron sources. Our Nation’s National Laboratories, hosted by DOE’s Office of Science, are experts in conducting this type of complex, large-scale research. The DOE Science for the Future Act reauthorizes the Office of Science to increase our investments in these resources and provide a roadmap for DOE’s research and development work. This is the first comprehensive authorization of the Office of Science, and it could not come at a better time. It will invest nearly $50 billion over 5 years, giving the Office of Science and our National Labs the resources they need to continue to excel.

Last week, the Senate passed the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. While I appreciate the Senate’s willingness to address American innovation and competitiveness, this bill is the wrong approach. It’s a Christmas tree bill, decorated with special interests from all over the map that don’t actually contribute to our scientific success. Their bill is not responsible or sustainable. The House Science bills, on the other hand, take a deliberate and comprehensive approach to U.S. research investment focused on the agencies, programs, and technologies that most need it.

I believe that the nation that leads in science and technology will shape the world order for the next century. I’d like that nation to be ours, and I’d like for emerging technologies to be developed with our values of transparency and fairness — something that would be lost if we allow the Chinese Communist Party to take the lead. We don’t have time for wish lists and top down government mandates. Our two bipartisan bills provide a solid path forward for the future that enables the whole of the federal research enterprise to flourish for decades to come.

Frank Lucas is ranking member Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hill