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AAAS CEO Calls for Federal R&D to Fuel U.S. Innovation and Recovery

House Budget Panel Examines R&D Impact on Innovation and Recovery

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AAAS CEO Sudip Parikh outlined ways to expand U.S. innovation and recovery before the House Budget Committee. | Neil Orman/AAAS

The American Association for the Advancement of Science presented recommendations to the House Budget Committee on how to expand American innovation, drive economic advancement and ensure the scientific community supports opportunities for all.

Sudip Parikh, AAAS CEO and executive publisher of the Science family of journals, participated as an expert witness in the July 8 “Fueling American Innovation and Recovery” hearing that examined ways to reinvigorate U.S. economic competitiveness, renew federal investment in scientific research and development (R&D), and address the global pandemic.

Updating the long-standing framework that guides federal investment in scientific research, ensuring effective coordination of federal responses to the crises facing the nation; and committing to provide scientific evidence to propel racial equity in science and national policymaking formed the core of Parikh’s recommendations to the panel.

Noting that the nation is celebrating the 75th anniversary of “Science: The Endless Frontier,” by Vannevar Bush, Parikh said the seminal report “provided a policy framework that envisioned a new national partnership between government, academia and industry to harness basic scientific knowledge for security and well-being.”

The framework’s success in advancing basic research, industrial innovation and economic growth has now been overtaken by the growing complexity and size of today’s scientific enterprise. “It’s time for an update” and a renewed federal investment system, Parikh said.

Parikh pointed to research intensity, stating that U.S. “R&D as a share of GDP is well below its peak level and below the investment levels of nine other countries.” He added, “Federal funding for R&D peaked at 1.9% of GDP. We should be investing more than we are right now in order to compete with other nations in science, technology, and innovation.”

To pursue necessary scientific responses to address the crises at hand requires a federal investment of 1.9% of GDP, a level that represents an annual funding increase of 11% in scientific R&D, said Parikh.

Support for the full spectrum of innovation is necessary, including “fundamental science, mission-driven technology, useful knowledge programs to meet local, national and international needs with the federal government as a key partner,” he said. New approaches to R&D funding models and networks should be explored, including “project grants, people-centered grants, teams and hubs, prizes.”

“Broadly, federal research is effective in producing discoveries that lead to high-impact, novel inventions, often in technology areas that have not yet received much industry attention,” said Parikh.

Parikh walked through various ways federal research investment benefits the nation, saying investment provides near-term uses to address immediate public challenges, and produces next-generation technology in high-risk and underinvested areas.

Applied science programs also have long-lasting, beneficial impact on the lives of Americans and are, he said, “integral for achieving public missions in health, national security, environmental stewardship, and other areas – especially when they are able to effectively engage users of the knowledge they produce.”

The pivotal role R&D investment plays for manufacturing innovation should not be lost, he said, noting that “manufacturers get some of their most important profitable invention from sources outside the firm, including universities and startups.”

During the more than two-hour hearing, Parikh fielded multiple questions from representatives of the 36-member committee. Asked why basic research on agriculture has declined, Parikh pointed to the success of agricultural research and encouraged additional investment.

Questioned about the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office’s recent proposal to restrict the visa status of international students and limit their participation at U.S. colleges and universities, Parikh said the plan was “bad for Americans and cruel to students,” a point he underscored in a statement directly following the administration’s proposal.

Joining the hearing were three additional expert witnesses, including Paul Romer, an economist and professor at New York University. Romer called on U.S. universities to give talented science and technology students a larger voice and leeway to pursue their own innovative ideas, not just those of professors. He said science and engineering degree fellowships should be granted to highly talented undergraduates to help expand U.S. innovation.

Deborah L. Wince-Smith, CEO of the Council on Competitiveness, also testified at the hearing. “If the United States does not make needed investments in its future, increase its scope and rate of innovation, its fundamental capacity to grow its economy, create jobs, maintain national security, solve societal challenges and provide a social safety net will continue to erode — and its geopolitical leadership will be at increasing risk,” she said.

Economist Willy Shih, a professor at Harvard Business School, said the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed U.S. reliance on other nations for equipment, devices and pharmaceuticals, a reality that requires expanded federal investment in basic scientific research and direct stimulus spending for technology investments.

In his opening remarks, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth said, “Experts have stressed the importance of aggressive, responsible, and strategic investments to our recovery from COVID-19 and the economic fallout. Aside from the obvious – like developing vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 – federal R&D investments would also help spur an inclusive recovery, boost regional economies and put Americans back to work.”