Jan 21, 2021 - Science

Biden seeks to "refresh" America's grand science strategy

Illustration of a hand referencing a periodic table of elements as a U.S. map
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden is tasking his new science adviser with examining the long-term U.S. strategy for science and technology amid competition from China and deepening inequality at home.

The big picture: The post-World War II framework for scientific research in the U.S. drove decades of prosperity for the country. But the U.S., the world and the practice of science have all changed dramatically since then, prompting calls to adjust the model.

What's new: In a letter last week, Biden asked geneticist Eric Lander — his pick as presidential science adviser — to "refresh and reinvigorate our national science and technology strategy to set us on a strong course for the next 75 years."

  • Biden posed five questions, including what lessons from the pandemic can be applied to other areas of public health, how science and technology advances can be used to address climate change, and how to protect the "long-term health of science and technology" in the United States.
  • He also asked how the U.S. can compete globally as China rises and how to ensure that the benefits of "science and technology are fully shared across America and among all Americans."

Biden's letter echoed one Franklin Roosevelt wrote to his science adviser, Vannevar Bush, more than 75 years ago that resulted in significant government investments in R&D, which paid long-term economic dividends for the U.S.

But those investments clustered in areas like Boston and Washington, D.C., which continued to benefit decades later, while other regions were neglected.

  • And beneficial technologies — whether in computing or biomedicine — haven't been accessible to people who are already marginalized, says Shobita Parthasarathy, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan.
  • "Our innovation institutions, policies and practices may maximize science and economic benefit, but they don't maximize social benefit," Parthasarathy says.
  • The post-World War II model was top-down with an emphasis on Big Science driven by scientists, and one in which citizens largely weren't consulted.
  • Giving people more involvement in decision-making about what research is prioritized and how it is carried out could help "align government's values with citizens' values," she adds.

Of note: Biden named Alondra Nelson, a sociologist who studies the intersection of science, technology and social inequality, as the deputy director for science and society in the Office of Science Technology and Policy, a new position.

  • Whether and how her focus is carried over to other science agencies will be key to addressing the challenges Biden laid out, Parthasarathy says. "These are all social problems and need social scientists as partners."

The backdrop for science has also shifted rapidly — from a world dominated by Western countries, where the federal government was the chief source of funding, to a landscape of global competitors and influential businesses.

  • The federal government has become less central to R&D funding over the last decade. Between 2010 and 2018, the share of U.S. R&D expenditures grew from 61% to almost 70% for businesses while the federal government's portion dropped from about 31% to 22%.
  • And while the U.S. invests more in basic research than China, Beijing continues to close the gap in total R&D spending, and researchers in China are notching scientific advances in space, quantum computing, AI and biomedicine — areas both governments identify as key to global competition.

Combined, those shifts raise the question of how the federal government should now invest in R&D.

  • Vannevar Bush sought to shield science from politics and the short-term needs of government, but some experts are now calling for more-focused funding in key strategic areas.

"Identifying priorities like that is a good idea for the new administration, but it also needs to focus on growing federal funding for R&D and giving it a higher priority than it has had since the days of Apollo," says Neal Lane, who was science adviser to former President Bill Clinton and is now a professor at Rice University's Baker Institute.

The bottom line: Bush's model helped to usher in a new world. For science to better support the world we live in now, it'll likely have to evolve.

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