Public Health and ‘Industries of the Future’ Top R&D Priorities Update

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Publication date: 
August 21, 2020

The White House’s latest annual R&D funding priorities memorandum includes a new emphasis on public health security and innovation, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, and prioritizes R&D to advance "Industries of the Future" for the third year in a row.


South Lawn of the White House

Image credit – Andrea Hanks / The White House

The White House released its annual R&D priorities memorandum on Aug. 14, providing guidance as federal agencies develop their submissions for the president’s fiscal year 2022 budget request. Produced by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget, the document lays out five priority themes, four of which are carried over from last year’s memo with few major alterations. These include a continued focus on “Industries of the Future” (IotF), which are described as the Trump administration’s “top R&D priority” and encompass artificial intelligence, quantum information science (QIS), advanced communications networks, advanced manufacturing, and biotechnology.

The memo also adopts public health security and innovation as a new theme in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, incorporating elements of an earlier theme on health and bioeconomic innovation. In an op-ed this week, OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier spotlighted the decades of foundational work underlying current efforts to study and combat the pandemic and predicted, “The knowledge and technologies brought to bear in the fight against COVID-19 will serve as the new foundation for the nation’s response to whatever challenge may come next.”

Pandemic pushes public health to the fore

With the pandemic now the front-and-center issue in the U.S., this year’s memo places public health first among its five themes, stressing the broad impacts that public health threats can have on “economic and national security.” It specifically prioritizes R&D on diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics, as well as the modeling, prediction, and forecasting of infectious diseases, stating, “Relevant departments and agencies should enhance their ability to predict future pandemics by continuing to advance data and forecasting science to inform a more streamlined, better coordinated, and continual whole-of-society approach to addressing future infectious disease outbreaks.”

Turning to biomedicine and biotechnology more broadly, the memo spotlights “pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions, personalized medicine, neuroscience, and opioids.” It also draws connections with other IotF priority areas such as AI and advanced manufacturing, noting they are “technologies that have been critical in ensuring rapid R&D of vaccines and therapeutics for pathogens such as COVID-19.”

The memo retains last year’s prioritization of the bioeconomy, which includes subjects ranging from medicine to agriculture and encompasses matters such as gene editing, data analytics, and evidence-based standards. However, a prior emphasis on veteran health and wellness has been dropped.

Administration fleshing out Industries of the Future vision

The IotF priority areas are included in the R&D memo for a third time, now with an updated and expanded discussion of the Trump administration’s plans for them. The memo lists a large number of AI research priorities and specifies that QIS programs should prioritize, among other things, “approaches for enabling and invigorating the nascent QIS ecosystem while deepening focused efforts, such as centers, core programs, and novel quantum networking collaborations,” as well as projects involving “critical infrastructure and testbeds.”  

The memo also reiterates President Trump’s commitment to double non-defense AI and QIS funding by fiscal year 2022 and it is accompanied by a report documenting the administration’s recent ramp-up in spending in these areas. Last month, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released its own, more detailed report recommending actions to spur all IotF areas. These include making larger, longer-term spending increases and creating “IotF Institutes,” which would house up to a “few thousand” researchers to perform cross-disciplinary and cross-sector R&D.

Previous memos also included computing and autonomous vehicles within the IotF rubric, and these areas are now referred to as “IotF-related” technologies that enable or are enabled by the IotF focus areas. On computing, the memo states that agencies should prioritize implementing the objectives outlined in the 2019 National Strategic Computing Initiative Update. Pointing to the recent establishment of the COVID-19 High Performance Computing Consortium, the memo also directs departments and agencies to explore “innovative models for resource aggregation and sharing and for public-private partnerships.”

Notable changes made to other priorities

Outside the IotF theme, this year’s memo continues to prioritize “early-stage” R&D in energy technologies and to call for “increased reliance on the private sector to fund later-stage research, development, and commercialization of energy production, storage, and consumption technologies, while also supporting user facilities that can improve multisector collaboration.” Although the memo retains last year’s prioritization of nuclear energy, particularly advanced reactor technologies, it no longer references the Versatile Test Reactor, a proposed multibillion dollar irradiation facility that would support advanced reactor R&D. Review of the reactor’s preliminary design, cost, and schedule is expected to be completed imminently.

The memo also continues to emphasize efforts to probe “Earth system predictability” and ties these efforts more explicitly than before to competitiveness in meteorological forecasting. It explains, “The United States aspires to lead the world in meteorological services via an Earth system approach that encompasses weather, climate, hydrologic, ocean, and related environmental topics.” This week, the Trump administration announced a new Interagency Council for Advancing Meteorological Services to coordinate federal meteorological activities and advance such an Earth system approach.

In addition to prioritizing ocean research, the memo now spotlights Arctic research as well. It states, “The United States is an Arctic nation, and the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic have national security, commerce, and transportation implications that other nations are already addressing. Departments and agencies should prioritize research investments that enhance our ability to observe, understand, and predict the physical, biological, and socio-economic processes of the Arctic to protect and advance American interests.”

The memo makes few changes in priorities for space exploration and research, continuing to emphasize the administration’s efforts to conduct a crewed lunar landing in 2024 as a step toward crewed Mars exploration. However, in addition to underscoring space resource utilization, in-space manufacturing and assembly, and advanced space-related power and propulsion capabilities, the memo also makes new mentions of orbital debris management and microgravity research on “new platforms in low Earth orbit.” While most microgravity research is currently conducted aboard the International Space Station, the Trump administration has long-term plans to transfer activities conducted aboard the station to platforms developed and operated by commercial entities.

Finally, as it has previously, the memo highlights “priority crosscutting actions,” which include developing the U.S. science and technology workforce, facilitating technology transfer and multisector partnerships, leveraging data, and reforming research environments. One previously listed action, supporting “transformative research of high risk and potentially high reward,” is no longer mentioned.


About the Authors

Adria Schwarber and Will Thomas
American Institute of Physics
aschwarber [at] and wthomas [at]
(301) 209-3083