The House Science Committee opened the 118th Congress by examining how a national science and technology strategy could help address urgent challenges posed by competition with China and by climate change.
The new Republican leadership of the House Science Committee devoted their first hearing of the new Congress last month to the status of U.S. science and technology in the global context and how best to develop a national strategy that ensures U.S. leadership in S&T.
The CHIPS and Science Act mandates creation of a national S&T strategy in the form of a quadrennial review by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which will focus on leadership in key technologies necessary to maintain economic competitiveness and meet societal needs.
Commenting on the requirement, Committee Chair Frank Lucas (R-OK) remarked, “The strategy ensures a comprehensive, whole-of-government approach to research and development, improving coordination between federal agencies, and a more strategic approach to prioritizing our resources.”
Kelvin Droegemeier, who led OSTP during the Trump administration and advocated the national strategy idea, testified at the hearing. Also appearing were Lawrence Livermore National Lab Director Kim Budil, American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Klon Kitchen, and Deborah Wince-Smith, the president of the Council on Competitiveness.
Strategy expected to cross sectors and policy domains
Droegemeier counseled in his opening statement that a national strategy should avoid identifying specific R&D focus areas and instead look ahead perhaps 25 years to provide a “bold and transformative” vision and a “context” for more immediate initiatives. He also said it ought to address the values, norms, and rules governing domestic and international R&D collaborations, as well as consider all sectors of the U.S. research enterprise.
“Everyone that looks at that plan, whatever sector they’re in, they [should] see themselves in that plan, all the way from the beginning, all the way through to execution,” he said.
Asked by Lucas about the benefits of a national strategy, Wince-Smith responded that better cross-sectoral coordination is needed and argued it should be facilitated by a new, high-profile policymaking body. She remarked, “I strongly believe that we need an entity that works on this policy that has the same stature and power, quite frankly, as the National Security [Council] in the White House and the other vehicles that address these domestic issues. But we need to integrate and cut across the sectors, and we’re not doing that now.”
In conducting the quadrennial review, Wince-Smith called for inclusion of policy areas that traditionally fall outside OSTP’s purview such as fiscal and foreign policy. She specifically recommended expanded initiatives in workforce development and regional innovation, creating a “national infrastructure bank” to finance manufacturing of new technologies, and “technology statecraft” to advance U.S. interests in global trade and technological cooperation.
Sitting in as committee ranking member, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) similarly called for the strategy to bring stakeholders together. “We must solicit and welcome the input of the private sector, communities that have historically been left out of setting research agendas, and everyone in between. Inclusion in setting the agenda is essential to the responsible development of technology that benefits all Americans and leaves no issue, and no American, behind,” she said.
Committee Ranking Member Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) did not attend the hearing but in a written statement highlighted Livermore’s recent historic achievement of fusion ignition, remarking that the national strategy should improve the U.S.’ ability to capitalize on such scientific breakthroughs.
“We need whole-of-government and in fact whole-of-nation strategic planning, in partnership with the private sector, for these profoundly important technologies so that we don’t repeat the mistakes we’ve made in the past in areas like semiconductors and that we are at risk of making in emerging technologies,” she wrote.
Concerns about China loom large
Many hearing participants spotlighted China as a key challenge that U.S. science and technology policy must face, both as a competitor and in terms of more direct threats such as cyberattacks, espionage, and the transfer of intellectual property through economic coercion.
“I want to be very clear about the consequences of allowing the Chinese Communist Party to become the world leader in science and technology,” Lucas remarked. “It means fewer opportunities for American companies to compete in the global economy. It means increased risks to sensitive national security tools. And it means that critical technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and cybersecurity tools will be shaped by and embedded with the CCP's values.”
Lucas also stated that China is already ahead of the U.S. in certain metrics. “They’re outspending us, out-publishing us, and out-educating us when it comes to STEM PhD graduates,” he said.
Among the witnesses, AEI’s Kitchen was particularly focused on the challenge posed by China. Asked by Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) if the Chinese government’s model offers any lessons, he replied, “I think the only lesson that I would recommend … is that it spreads the national security burden across its public and private sector, but the CCP does this through coercion, and for economic reasons as well, and we do not want to do that. What the U.S. should do, however, is forge voluntary public and private partnerships that are based on a love of country, common interests, and our shared fate.”
Turning to Droegemeier, Babin asked how the CHIPS and Science Act addresses research security in academic settings. Droegemeier pointed to a provision in the CHIPS and Science Act directing the National Science Foundation to establish a research security information-sharing and analysis organization that will help universities with security training and risk assessment.
He went on, “I think we need to educate, we need to train, we need to create vigilance, but we also need to promote our values. And folks that come here from other countries, we need to model those values [for them] and talk about the consequences for not adhering to those values. … I think most people long to play by the rules.”
Democrats focus on climate
While there was little friction between Republicans and Democrats throughout the hearing, there were differences in emphasis. In particular, whereas the Republicans were more apt to focus on issues related to China, several Democrats directed their attention toward climate change.
Rep. Andrea Salinas (D-OR), a new member of Congress, probed the intersection of the two issues. “When it comes to competing with China and the need to address climate change, what does that global leadership in science and technology development look like? … And then, how can the U.S. best build upon the progress of other nations, including competitor nations?” she asked, noting the potential for competitors to have more mature climate mitigation strategies.
Droegemeier reiterated his view that the U.S. should continue to welcome researchers from China and use it as an opportunity to model values. “Suppose we just shut off all the immigration instantaneously. How long would it take us to get to where we would be otherwise? We’re talking generations,” he said. He added that the U.S. should also press China on its construction of coal-fired power plants both domestically and in other countries.
Another new member of Congress, Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL), asked Droegemeier how a national strategy might address climate change. Droegemeier suggested it is an ideal question for the strategy because of a need to consider long-term uncertainties, including those in computer models of atmospheric change. “I would love to see us in this country build what the Japanese did 20 years ago, an Earth Simulator. … Livermore could be the perfect place to house this,” he said, pointing to Budil.
Frost asked Budil to elaborate on the potential in computer simulation. She cited the introduction of machine learning and artificial intelligence methods and the ongoing installation of exascale machines at DOE national labs such as Oak Ridge and Livermore.
“By taking on board large amounts of data, we're getting much more data at higher fidelity about different aspects of the climate system. Using those tools to really smartly advance the state of the art … we should be able to give communities a real edge in understanding what's likely to be visiting them, not just today, but several years down the road,” she said.
FYI is an editorially independent science policy news service from the American Institute of Physics. If you are interested in republishing this content, please contact [email protected].