House Science Committee Takes Broad Look at Innovation Strategy

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Publication date: 
April 23, 2021
Number: 
38

The House Science Committee held a hearing last week to solicit ideas for bolstering the U.S. research enterprise, seeking to inform bipartisan innovation bills that it plans to advance in the coming months.

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Caltech biochemical engineer and Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold

Caltech biochemical engineer and Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold was one of four witnesses at a House Science Committee hearing on U.S. innovation strategy. Arnold is currently co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

(Image credit – Caltech)

The House Science Committee held a hearing last week to consider strategic challenges faced by the U.S. research enterprise. Calling for a “bold and more inclusive model for innovation in the 21st century,” Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) explained the committee is currently developing bipartisan policy bills that it plans to advance in the coming months.

Johnson and other committee leaders recently introduced the bipartisan NSF for the Future Act, which proposes broad policy updates for the National Science Foundation, including the creation of a new directorate focused on “societal challenges.” The bill offers a vision for NSF that contrasts with the one offered in the Endless Frontier Act, which is under consideration in the Senate. The committee is also planning to introduce corresponding policy bills for other agencies under its jurisdiction, including the Department of Energy’s Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, that could ultimately be bundled into an innovation legislation package.

In addition, Committee Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) recently reintroduced the Securing American Leadership in Science and Technology Act, which proposes that Congress double funding for research programs across several science agencies and includes provisions aimed at improving research security, workforce development, and technology transfer. The bill marks out Republican priorities as the committee prepares to negotiate the agency-by-agency bills.

Concerns over China propel innovation push

In their opening remarks, committee leaders cited increasing competition with China as a principal motivation for bolstering R&D. Johnson noted U.S. spending on non-defense R&D as a share of gross domestic product has declined in recent decades even as China’s spending has accelerated, and Lucas stated China has “likely surpassed” the U.S. in total R&D spending.

Lucas continued, “In addition to outspending us, they’re looking to acquire foreign research, attract premier talent by building out world-class research infrastructure, and build up their domestic STEM workforce. With our leadership in science and technology at risk, we need to reevaluate our commitment to the fundamentals we need to succeed: basic research, cutting-edge facilities, and a thriving STEM workforce.”

However, Johnson cautioned against developing R&D policy solely through the lens of competition, building on remarks she made when introducing the NSF for the Future Act.

“We will lead by being our own best selves, not by emulating China,” she said. Quoting a forthcoming article, she added, “Competitiveness is neither a necessary nor a sufficient basis for equity, sustainability, or security … China’s industrial policy has improved neither equity nor sustainability.”

Ideas offered for expanding ‘human capital’

Leading off the witness panel, former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine echoed the committee’s concerns about U.S. competitiveness, drawing on a study he recently co-chaired titled, The Perils of Complacency: America at a Tipping Point in Science and Engineering.

Long a prominent figure in discussions around international competition in science and engineering, Augustine also led the influential 2005 National Academies study Rising Above the Gathering Storm. Asked what has changed since that report, he responded that while many of its recommendations remain relevant, the study committee did not anticipate the speed of China’s emergence.

He also stressed that both reports emphasize a need to build up “human capital” in the domestic STEM workforce.

“It's noteworthy that the U.S. science and technology enterprise today would barely function were it not for foreign-born individuals who have come to our country, received their advanced degrees here, remained here, raised their families here,” he said, adding that immigrants make up about one-third of the U.S. scientific and technical workforce.

Decrying U.S. students’ performance on standardized tests and the nation’s “seeming inability to produce scientists and technologists from domestically born children at scale,” Augustine argued there is an urgent need for better-qualified STEM teachers at the K–12 level. He suggested the federal government provide 10,000 scholarships to STEM graduates who agree to teach in public schools for five years after completing their degree.

Carnegie Mellon University President Farnam Jahanian also highlighted the prominent role immigrants play in driving innovation and argued the U.S. should “stamp a green card” to the diplomas of international STEM students, echoing a common shorthand for proposals to grant certain student visa holders an expedited path to permanent residency.

“We invest in these students to come here. They become part of our society. We should do everything we can to keep them,” he said.

In addition, Jahanian said efforts to cultivate the domestic STEM workforce should address “persistent structural barriers to access and opportunity [that] are preventing the benefits of our innovation-based economy from being widely shared,” such as by expanding digital literacy training.

Caltech biochemical engineer and Nobel Prize winner Frances Arnold, who co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, focused much of her testimony on workforce issues, recommending that agencies offer flexible fellowships to help retain young people in research careers.

“The strength of the academic research system in this country, in my opinion, comes from empowering younger scientists. I strongly favor portable fellowships because young people are capable of deciding where the future lies. … Unrestricted grants to the most promising young researchers pay off with work that is truly innovative rather than conservative by design,” she said.

She also argued the administrative burden associated with the grant process has hindered workforce growth.

“It was easier 35 years ago to start a career in academic research because we did not spend two-thirds of our time in department meetings, writing proposals, or complying with regulations,” she reflected. “With additional responsibilities that women have with respect to family, it's very difficult to compete and almost impossible to enjoy the process. It is also a struggle for scientists from underrepresented communities.”

Government role in R&D explored

The hearing also explored the merits of the federal government supporting activities across a spectrum ranging from fundamental research to technology demonstration and deployment.

All four witnesses emphasized the importance of federal investment in basic science. For instance, Augustine argued the government must be the “funder of default” for fundamental research, given that factors such as shareholder pressure make private companies less likely to provide the steady long-term support necessary to shepherd early-stage R&D. 

Former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz advocated for the federal government to expand its role in later-stage R&D and proposed that Congress sharply increase funding for “successful innovation structures,” including DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and its Energy Frontier Research Centers.

Arguing that a “decade of supercharged innovation” is needed to meet carbon emissions reduction targets, he specifically called for the federal government to work with international and private partners to advance emerging energy technologies such as atmospheric carbon dioxide removal and advanced nuclear energy, including both fission and fusion. He noted that while these technologies have attracted significant private investment, they are unlikely to “get over the hump” to large-scale demonstration projects without additional federal support.

Concerning NSF, Moniz suggested the agency could expand its support for “use-inspired research” by taking a leading role in an interagency “platform technologies initiative” focused on enabling technologies such as artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing. However, alluding to the NSF technology directorate proposed in the Endless Frontier Act, he cautioned that “adding a major focus on technology development and commercialization to NSF’s mission would be a major risk to the nature and culture of the agency and would need to be circumscribed with great care.”

Jahanian similarly urged caution, calling for NSF to be provided sufficient “flexibility,” given its traditional role in supporting fundamental research. While not referring to any specific proposal, he said that “forcing down certain structures on agencies has a significant risk associated with it.”

He also argued against thinking of fundamental research as disconnected from strategic outcomes.

“The current moment creates an imperative to choose between increased support for curiosity-driven research versus strategic mission-driven initiatives in emerging technologies. This is a false choice. Scientific exploration occurs along a dynamic continuum,” he said.

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