In his seminal memorandum Science – The Endless Frontier, written in the waning days of World War II, Vannevar Bush called for Federal investment in “… the free play of free intellects, working on subjects of their own choice, in the manner dictated by their curiosity for exploration of the unknown.”
Presaging a world forever reshaped by the tumult of World War II, Bush wrote eloquently about the rationale for both new federal policies and increased investment — improving healthcare and combating disease, ensuring national security via new defense technologies, creating new products and ensuring full employment, reforming patent law and tax policy, facilitating the international exchange of scientific information, and cultivating new scientific talent.
As we know, the United States government over the next two decades responded to Bush’s call, funding a group of basic and applied research agencies (for example, the NSF, DARPA, DOE, NASA, NIH and NIST) that then partnered with industry and academic institutions, forming an innovation and research ecosystem that has long been the envy of the world. In times of national need, this “innovation engine” has responded with new discoveries, breakthrough technologies, new medicines, new economic opportunities, and innovative national security approaches, all while cultivating and attracting new domestic and international STEM talent.
A shifting global landscape
Every two years, the National Science Board (NSB) publishes a Congressionally-mandated report on the state of US science and engineering, working in collaboration with the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES). These Science & Engineering Indicators span education (both K-12 and higher education), workforce, research and development, research publications, production and trade, innovation metrics, and public perceptions of science, together with state-by-state statistics.
What do the most recent Indicators data tell us about the global state of science and engineering? Although the US still leads the world in R&D spending, having watched and learned, other countries are now investing heavily in their own innovation ecosystems, cultivating human talent, expanding their knowledge and skilled technical workforce, and constructing the advanced infrastructure needed to facilitate discovery, economic growth and defense capabilities.
In the midst of this rising global economic competition, the United States now finds its global scientific and engineering leadership increasingly at risk. Although the US still leads in many scientific and engineering domains, the margin of our leadership is demonstrably declining, and the measured derivatives (i.e., the rate and direction of change) are not encouraging. Perhaps even more worrisome is that we are not adequately developing, attracting and expanding the diverse, domestic STEM talent base we so desperately need.
Charting the future
In response to this shifting global landscape, the NSB has developed Vision 2030. Released in 2020, Vision 2030 outlines potential actions for the US to remain an innovation leader, focusing on four action areas that address these societal needs:
1. Delivering the benefits of research to society
In research agencies and academia, we tend to focus —rightly so — on Vannevar Bush’s clarion call for greater federal investment in basic research. But we often forget that his core rationale for research investment and talent development was centered on very pragmatic and important societal issues, namely national security, economic well-being and public health. Bush argued that support of basic research was about the country’s interests and needs, and it still is. Federal support of basic, curiosity-driven research ultimately rests on delivering value to Americans. Put another way, research funding to explore the endless frontier is not an intellectual birthright; it brings practical, social and moral obligations to our benefactors and beneficiaries.
Today’s R&D-intensive industries exist, in part, because the federal government invested in basic research long before the research had any known application. Only the federal government has the ability and motivation to make strategic, long-term investments to create new knowledge — risks that are difficult or impossible for the private sector. Simply put, the innovation engine is not driven by perpetual motion but by continued, strategic investment.
The NSB Indicators also show that although federal investment in basic research increased from 2010 to 2019, real expenditures actually decreased when adjusted for inflation. Recent passage of the CHIPS and Science Act, which authorizes major increases for both the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, is encouraging. However, it is important to distinguish budget authorizations from appropriations. There is still work to be done to translate the poetry of authorization yearnings into the pragmatic appropriations prose of major budget increases.
2. Developing STEM talent for America
While working at Microsoft, I regularly spoke with government ministers around the world about innovation policy and talent development. In each meeting, I delivered a consistent message —advantage accrues to those countries that cultivate and nurture the talent of their residents. As a resource renewed each generation, talent is the treasure on which any nation’s prosperity, health and security depend. Nor is talent a respecter of power, position or wealth; it comes from all backgrounds and socioeconomic strata.
The US must be a STEM powerhouse — both by expanding its domestic talent and by attracting global talent. But we have work to do. For far too long, millions have been missing from the science and engineering enterprise. For our STEM workforce to be representative of the US population in 2030, the number of women must nearly double, Hispanic or Latinos must triple, Black or African Americans must more than double, and the number of American Indian or Alaska Natives must quadruple. These Missing Millions are our future.
Too many of our primary and secondary school STEM students are being left behind, and the leaky pipeline extends further into college and graduate school. For example, the NSB Indicators show clear correlations between mathematics and science performance and eligibility for free and reduced school lunches. They also show that school districts with large numbers of disadvantaged students also have the largest proportion of less experienced science and mathematics teachers. As a poor child of the Arkansas Ozarks, I experienced this firsthand, and I will be forever grateful to those who gave me an opportunity.
We need clear, compelling, effective and actionable plans with specific timelines that expand educational opportunities and reduce disparities. Most importantly, we must be honest with ourselves that current programs and approaches are insufficient to achieve the change we need.
3. Expanding the geography of innovation
The US science and engineering enterprise is undeniably an engine of national economic growth. However, distribution of that enterprise is highly unequal, with widely varying strengths and opportunities across the states. Some states host higher education institutions that receive substantial amounts of federal research funding; regrettably, others do not. The economies of some states have rich and powerful ecosystems built on information technology, biomedicine, telecommunications and other “industries of the future”; others do not.
Today’s political and social debates about this unequal geography of innovation rightfully reflect concerns about inequalities in our country. Every state has important assets and expertise — in industry, in higher education, and in the workforce. Leveraging these local and regional capabilities is key to expanding the geography of innovation and creating economic opportunities for everyone.
4. Fostering a global science and engineering community
The US has long been a global convener and leader in scientific processes, methods and priorities. As a recent example, Indicators’ network analysis of coronavirus publications illustrated the centrality of the US in the global research effort. These collaborations train the next generation of R&D workers, bring cultural, economic and political benefits, attract new talent to the US, and allow the US to leverage its resources on costly research facilities. A strong US presence also promulgates and strengthens global acceptance of the core values of openness, transparency and the ethical conduct of research.
The road ahead
Despite the manifest challenges facing the US and the world, there is cause for optimism. Our history is replete with examples of the discovery and innovation enterprise responding to societal needs, and we again find ourselves at an important crossroads, facing the need and the opportunity for bold vision and change. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Vannevar Bush’s vision:
Science, by itself, provides no panacea for individual, social, and economic ills. It can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, whether the conditions be peace or war. But without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.
Looking inward, we draw inspiration from our core values — the creation of new knowledge and scholarship of the highest order, while educating a new generation to be thoughtful and productive citizens, critical thinkers armed with leading edge STEM knowledge and skills.
Looking outward, we partner with our society and like-minded global partners, sharing the fruits of our labors, empowering every individual, regardless of background or circumstances of birth, to pursue his or her dreams.
Looking forward and working together, we build a bright future that beckons all.
As science fiction writer Neal Stephenson once noted:
If we want to create a better future, we need to start with better dreams.
Let’s dream big and bright about a larger, more diverse and inclusive workforce and an inclusive science and engineering ecosystem that continues to be a magnet for global talent.
NB: My sincere thanks to my National Science Board colleagues and to Amanda Vernon, Office of the NSB, for editorial comments and selected elements of this essay.
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