In 2014, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences published a report entitled, “Restoring the Foundation: The Vital Role of Research in Preserving the American Dream.” The conclusion of the report was that the research enterprise of the United States is at a “critical inflection point.” The trajectory of innovation in this country has been negatively impacted by past, present, and possibly future policy decisions. Innovation and breakthrough discoveries emerge from fundamental, curiosity-driven research in all fields.
In contrast, our corporate system rightfully values a market-driven focus on short-term results, thereby leaving the federal government as the primary funder of fundamental research, which by 2014 had dropped 13 percent from 10 years earlier as a percentage of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product. The report comments on how current funding mechanisms create instability, making it difficult for researchers to set long-term priorities. Three recommendations emerged from the report:
- secure America’s leadership in science and engineering basic research by providing sustainable federal investments;
- ensure that the country receives the maximum benefit from federal investment; and
- regain America’s standing as an innovation leader, which would require a robust national government-university-industry research partnership.
In 2015, business leaders and hundreds of organizations emphasized the academy’s report by issuing further calls to action in a white paper addressed to Congress titled, “Innovation: An American Imperative.” The paper listed desired reforms and urged policy makers to take several actions, with the ultimate goal of renewing federal commitment to scientific discovery. In 2018, an encouraging progress report on the call was issued.
In May 2020, the academy issued a follow-up report to “Restoring the Foundation,” entitled, “The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science & Engineering.” The report again emphasized that a significant majority of economic growth in the U.S. is attributable to advancements in science and technology, but that there was still a lack of understanding of the indispensability of innovation, competitiveness, and the know-how needed to address societal challenges. The report noted that the country had been through a period where security concerns resulted in significant restrictions on foreign researchers who consistently filled domestic talent gaps in science and engineering. Other countries had become more competitive at attracting research talent. With the acceleration of scientific and technological discoveries being measured in months rather than years, the report asked: “How does the United States compete?”
The report presented several recommendations for accelerating the need for the country to continue as a leader in the pace of innovation and translating discoveries and inventions from laboratory research to products. Industry, understandably, focuses R&D investments on immediate challenges, making it even more important that the federal government accelerate its own investment in research — especially basic research in the fields of science, engineering, medicine, and mathematics. Not every scientific discovery or technological innovation will have its origin in the U.S. Recognition of this fact makes international scientific cooperation absolutely vital. Unless the United States remains a leading contributor to the discovery of new knowledge and has the capacity and the will to translate that knowledge into applications, it will be left behind, isolated, and increasingly disadvantaged in a 21st-century world powered by science and technology.
With renewed national enthusiasm for innovation and research, there are now bright opportunities for prioritization of investment in research and higher education, cultivation of domestic and foreign talent, and productive partnerships between universities, corporations, and the federal government. In December 2020, the Association of American Universities outlined several recommendations to then President-Elect Biden that echoes the imperatives outlined by the American Academies assessment of innovation and research in this country. Now, President Biden’s first budget proposal includes $250 billion for research over the next several years. While the U.S. is sure to face budgetary pressures in the years ahead, a palpable optimism exists within our national research enterprise today.