By Senator Bill Frist, MD, former Majority Leader, United State Senate, Dr. Harlan M. Krumholz, Harold H. Hines Professor of Medicine, Yale School of Medicine, and David Beier, Chief of Domestic Policy, Vice President Al Gore
Every new era in American history demands new tools for economic progress and new definitions of infrastructure. The early 1800s century brought us canals, which opened westward commerce. The late 1800s brought us the transcontinental railroads and land grant colleges, which connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and democratized access to higher education. The 20th brought us the interstate highways, the space program and the Human Genome Project, which opened new frontiers for movement, exploration and science. The President’s American Jobs Plan has the potential to be a part of this arc.
Invest in Science for Economic Competitiveness & National Security
As the negotiations in Washington begin in earnest, we want to spotlight a vital piece of the Jobs Plan. Biden’s proposal commits $250 billion to build and strengthen the U.S. research enterprise, applying a framework of equity, diversity, and a focus on American goods and services. It invests hundreds of billions of dollars in research and development to create a healthier climate, better health and high-quality jobs. While not literal roads and bridges, these investments will promote a vibrant and just society. The program has the potential to make the US more competitive in a global market, especially against China, and better protected against biological and cyber threats of the future.
These investments aim to create a carbon neutral economy, expand broadband in underserved and rural communities, establish responsible and ethical civilian and defense uses for artificial intelligence, develop new medicines for the next pandemic and invest $50 billion in new technology spending at the National Science Foundation.
Rooted in the knowledge that science and innovation are the keys to the future, this piece of President Biden’s plan takes a holistic view of infrastructure: investing in human capital through education, training, and research. This includes a series of groundbreaking R & D projects that ensure a diverse set of scientists and investments in places like Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Unleashing the creativity and productivity of all Americans is as important as building semiconductor or lithium battery factories. Dignifying work and workers allow this plan to sustain a national goal of committing to a fair and equitable deal for everyone.
Ensuring Success of the Investment in Science, R&D and Innovation
To ensure success, the $250 billion commitment to science and innovation should also be rooted in data. We have learned from the pandemic that positive results are achieved faster by cooperation and shared public domain data around public health goals. Each “grand innovation challenge” should have a component on data sharing and require assurances of ethical uses of data. Agencies must avoid creating silos where lack of transparency can lead to delays, duplication and dead ends.
We also encourage this investment to serve as a jumping off point for enhanced public-private partnerships, which were most clearly and publicly demonstrated by our government’s coordination with the biopharmaceutical sector in the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments. Today the private sector invests about four times as much in R & D as the government. Companies conducting R & D like Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Amazon and Intel are essential parts of the science infrastructure. The proposal could benefit from the multiplier effects of public-private partnerships, the role of corporate and university R & D or the positive effects of new approaches in philanthropy.
Finally, the federal research enterprise is larger than the sum of federal spending. It includes public policy tools that influence the private sector such as government procurement, economic prizes, tax, trade, intellectual property regimes and technology transfer rules. No single agency has the expertise to conduct and manage all forms of science and technology. White House management of this whole of government undertaking is necessary.
Fortunately, President Biden has recognized this need for structural reform by elevating his Science and Technology Advisor to cabinet status. On his first day in office, he penned a letter outlining his agenda to his science advisor, Dr. Eric Lander, a global expert in multiple disciplined and experienced manager. Dr. Lander and his expert teams in the Office of Science and Technology should have resources and staff to review the goals, establish accountability and scrutinize budgets of the significant projects within this proposal.
The White House should revitalize and empower the National Science and Technology Council, consisting of the cabinet secretaries for relevant federal agencies — to mitigate turf conflicts and overlap. Working with Dr. Lander we can be assured that federal agencies will intelligently use available tools — including best practices from aligned nations — to creatively advance science. The National Economic and Security Councils are good examples similarly structured White House councils.
Bipartisanship Should be the Goal
The Biden plan’s $250 billion investment in science and R & D is big and audacious, and we believe central to our nation’s future success. Securing sustainable support over a period of years requires bipartisan congressional support. The President is open to listening and compromising to enact his vision. Congress should also commit to negotiation and compromise. Finding common ground is worth the effort. The destiny of the nation is at stake. Once enacted, excellent execution and sound management will drive us toward a better, innovation-driven future. Together, we can obtain the promise of equitable growth by harnessing the intellect and capabilities of all Americans.