Today, researchers across the world are using all the scientific tools available in a global race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19. But America is no longer the preeminent leader in scientific research as we were for the second half of the 20th Century. We must address this vulnerability.
Though we sit on opposite sides of the political aisle, recently we all came together to respond to this sudden, unprecedented health and economic crisis, approving the largest economic recovery package in American history.
This unifying moment brings clarity to a longstanding national vulnerability: our decades-long underinvestment in the infrastructure that would help prevent, respond to and recover from an emergency of this scale — namely, scientific and technological discovery, and the ability to turn fundamental research into innovations we produce here at home.
In coming months, as we address this public health emergency, stabilize our economy and formulate a recovery plan, we must also reposition the United States to lead the 21st Century with the greatest scientific and technological breakthroughs. When America discovers a vaccine or develops a cost-effective ventilator, then we can manufacture and deploy such life-saving innovations here at home.
Conversely, America’s dwindling investments in the tools and talent essential to modern research and development threatens our long-term health, economic and national security. We cannot allow our research capabilities to atrophy without undermining our global competitiveness and leaving our people vulnerable during a time of crisis.
So what are we proposing?
The Endless Frontiers Act proposes a renewed national investment in public research and development to strengthen our nation’s innovation ecosystem now and into the future.
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In the near-term, this means specific investments in the urgent research and production needed to confront COVID-19. This should involve dedicated investment for federal and university labs and technical facilities, paired with infrastructure investments like the broadband build out needed to tap the innovation potential of communities across America. This should also include investment in technical education. We must fund undergraduate scholarships, graduate fellowships, trainees and post-doctoral support in the targeted research areas.
Longer term, we should sustain our global leadership through investment on the frontiers of modern science and technology — the types of investments that will soon help us overcome COVID-19. We also must continually improve our ability to rapidly move groundbreaking ideas from government laboratories to job-creating companies and, in turn, to the world’s consumers.
Finally, at a time of historically low interest rates, we should work to pair federal investments in research and development with public- and private-partner investments in scientific and technical moonshots.
Prepare for future threats
Even as we continue to fight the coronavirus, our country must prepare to confront the next generation of global threats and seize opportunities that lie over the horizon. We must also remain mindful that, as our nation recovers, China gains ground. Beijing‘s authoritarian leaders aim to capitalize on this moment with an eye toward outpacing the United States by investing in technological innovations essential to Americans’ future safety and prosperity.
The private sector efficiently funds research and development of goods and services that meet the demands of individual consumers. But many of the technologies that will collectively benefit our citizens over the long term require bold public investments in fundamental research.
In the decades after World War II, America’s leaders wisely anticipated the benefits of such investments. By 1965, we invested 1.8% of GDP to rapidly advance the frontiers of knowledge. The returns were spectacular. In fact, the engines fueling our modern economy trace their roots to such investments, from aerospace to modern computing, from the internet to life-saving pharmaceuticals. Even our now-ubiquitous smartphones were spawned by public investment before the private sector brought them to consumers.
In the weeks ahead, America will need to support those impacted by this pandemic and the private businesses that sustain our way of life. But, as we prepare for the post-COVID-19 future, we should draw inspiration from the past. Our own history proves that smart, targeted and substantial public investments in the infrastructure and talent necessary to produce cutting-edge scientific breakthroughs will result in higher rates of economic growth, sustained job creation and greater wealth creation.
Investment in research pays off
Today we know that every dollar invested in the National Institutes of Health leads to $3 in increased stock market valuation for private companies. And studies show that raising public research and development spending by $100 billion per year on a permanent basis could help generate as much as 4 million new American jobs.
Unfortunately, our appreciation for the benefits of such investments has waned. Federal R&D spending has fallen to a mere 0.6% of GDP. Whereas America once led the world in the share of our economy invested in R&D, we now rank 12th globally. If we fail to change course, China will invest more than the United States in just 10 years.
America is enduring a national stress test. Our people are up to the challenge, but our gradual retreat from global scientific leadership has been laid bare. America’s pharmaceutical scientists are working tirelessly to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, but smarter, bolder investments in recent decades might have better prepared us for this moment.
Similarly, many of our teachers and other workers have resiliently adapted to shelter in place orders. But strains on America’s broadband network to support the surge in online demand for remote work and distance learning have surpassed the capacity of private carriers. Now is the time to change course.
In the face of adversity, Americans are resilient. We adapt, improvise, overcome. We are a nation of problem solvers, freelancers and innovators. In 2020, as we face one of the most powerful enemies humankind has ever faced — and we steel ourselves against the next threat to our way of life — we should harness this creative power. We should make a down payment on science and technology today by passing The Endless Frontiers Act.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, is Senate Democratic leader; Sen. Todd Young is a Republican from Indiana; Rep. Mike Gallagher is a Republican from Wisconsin; Rep. Ro Khanna is a Democrat from California.