The Next Administration Must Get Science and Technology Policy Right

As wildfires ravage the west coast, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to exact a toll on the nation as its citizens grapple with the economic fallout and businesses face uncertainty. The country is bracing itself for an even greater host of challenges in the coming months: the onset of the seasonal flu, uncertainty around the availability of a COVID-19 vaccine, underdeveloped telehealth systems, navigating the challenges of online learning and remote work that requires access to a strong digital infrastructure and broadband. These challenges underscore the urgent need for renewed investment in the science and technology enterprise and the rapid application of new scientific knowledge and advanced technology to solve complex problems.

One thing is clear: the next presidential administration must renew its commitment to investing in science and technology regardless of who wins in November. We write as a group of leaders from across science, technology and innovation who have served in the executive branch, Congress, academia and the private sector, now joining together on a nonpartisan basis to unite behind ambitious ideas put forward by the Day One Project to make the generational investments this country needs to address its stubborn challenges and transform every American’s life for the better.

The Day One Project was launched in January, 2020, to build a portfolio of innovative and actionable ideas across science, technology and innovation policy to inform the priorities of the next administration.. The Project, which is non-partisan, aims to put forth forward-leaning proposals to address pressing challenges including responding to the health and economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic and delivering a vaccine, the proliferation of devastating wildfires, addressing racial and gender equity, ensuring economic growth, boosting American national security, rebuilding institutional capacity of Federal institutions tasked with science and technology work, as well as elevating the role of science, technology, and innovation in the policymaking process.

In the 1950s and 1960s, successive presidents challenged the nation to explore a once-unimaginable frontier—and American ingenuity delivered, with NASA producing both the largest rocket in history and the precise machinery necessary to make the trip to the moon. In the 1970s and 1980s, this nation made rapid advances in computing, boldly proposing that the computer could be a tool for everyone, and created military and intelligence technologies so powerful that they helped recast geopolitics.

In the 1990s, the U.S. served as the center of the international Human Genome Project, with American scientists daring to undertake a challenging mission that has since revolutionized the field of biology. In the past two decades, American innovators led the construction of an entire economy around network connections and servers, connecting over three billion people worldwide and putting the world’s knowledge at anyone’s fingertips.

In the future, the United States has the opportunity to continue to lead the way in science and technology. Scientific and technological innovation are the engine of America’s essential contract with its citizens: to ensure national security, to advance public health and environmental quality and to achieve sustained and inclusive economic prosperity. Rooted in a rich history of American ingenuity, this contract represents a shared expectation by the people of this country that American innovation will play an indispensable role in meeting this country’s most important challenges. But events in this year alone make clear such progress will not happen if science and technology are taken for granted.

The COVID-19 pandemic could be remembered solely for its immense human and economic costs—or it could also mark an opportunity to reimagine health with prevention and equity at the core and a pivot to recommit the science and technology enterprise to creating a better American future. To get these benefits―and the advances in so many other aspects of national well-being and security that depend on science and technology―the American science and technology community must cultivate and lift up diverse perspectives across race, gender and background, tapping the full potential of this nation to maintain the country’s global edge in innovation. It will also require embracing other nations as partners, working with allies on topics driving national security and economic competitiveness, and building broader coalitions on global challenges in which all have a common stake.

Two critical rebuilding efforts are needed to provide the foundations for the work ahead. The first is to reinvigorate government institutions of science, technology and innovation and build on existing strengths in this nation’s ecosystem of government-funded research in universities and national laboratories, entrepreneurial innovation in companies big and small, and public-private partnerships to accelerate the transition from research discoveries to applications in the national interest. The second critical effort is to lay the groundwork for the fundamentally new modes of scientific research and innovation that some of the nation’s challenges will require such as rising inequality and the need for more comprehensive, forward-leaning approaches to climate change, ecological impoverishment and epidemic disease.

New ideas abound, from funding models that reward high-risk research to new mechanisms that bridge the divide from lab to market. Getting these ideas embraced and funded would benefit from the commitment of every American who believes in the promise of scientific and technological innovation. Each generation has the choice of how to best embark on a path to progress. Previous generations created the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; landed astronauts on the moon; orbited satellites to monitor the state of the Earth’s environment and the activities of this country’s potential adversaries; invented the internet and the smartphone; harvested electricity from the sun; and produced generation after generation of increases in the American standard of living. The current moment will require a response of comparable ambition that seeks to include every American and builds U.S. capacity in every zip code.

Leadership from the U.S. government is needed to help leverage the science and technology community and work towards ideas that can shape our nation’s future for the better—starting with building up the science and technology capacity in executive-branch departments and elevating the role of science and technology in the federal policymaking process. As former leaders and veterans of a number of federal science and technology institutions, we know rebuilding these organizations requires commitment and expertise from day one of the next presidential term. Whether President Trump wins a second term or Vice President Joe Biden becomes the next commander-in-chief, the next administration must make investments in science and technology a core priority. Equally important, the whole science and technology community must work to ensure the public’s trust in science and evidence.

Of course, the federal government alone cannot accomplish what is needed; creating robust partnerships with industry, academia and with state and local governments will be critical to this renewed commitment to reinvigorating the science-society partnership. The Day One Project is working with experts and new voices to help shape the agenda of the next presidential term, and to convert ambitious new ideas into usable policy proposals that generate impact. There is so much that needs to be done; we must be prepared on day one.

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