Science and technology research is critical infrastructure, says Baker Institute

Investments in science and technology research are vital to the United States’ economic growth and global leadership, according to a new report from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

The Biden administration has made science and technology (S&T) a centerpiece of its early policy agenda with ambitious targets for federal investments in research and development (R&D). There are also growing concerns in Congress about the United States’ global leadership in S&T-focused industries, especially in relation to China.

“As the high technology sector (e.g., advanced computing and communications, social media platforms and other web-based services) becomes an increasingly large part of the overall U.S. economy, federal funding for early stage R&D, which has been at the root of much of the technological progress of this past century, is more important than ever,” wrote the Baker Institute’s Kenneth Evans, a scholar in science and technology policy, and Kirstin Matthews, a fellow in science and technology policy.

While President Biden’s first budget proposal aims to authorize historic increases to federal R&D agencies, the authors argue that significant challenges remain to ensure long-term, international competitiveness across scientific disciplines and advanced technologies.

According to their report, shifting priorities between administrations, changes to the ideology of Congress and broader economic conditions in the U.S. at large have resulted in inconsistent funding for R&D.

“Traditionally, federal funding for R&D receives bipartisan support in Congress, particularly for health- and defense-related research activities,” the authors wrote. “However, since the mid-1990s, government spending on basic research has declined or stagnated as a share of the U.S. GDP, in part due to the intrinsic uncertainties about the ultimate impacts of basic research.”

Science and technology R&D is essential to creating new knowledge and tools, the authors argue, because it ensures the development of new products and technologies that can drive domestic and global economies. Economists estimate innovations stemming from S&T accounted for more than 60% of economic growth over the last century.

Yet, scientists have placed relatively little value on evaluating and communicating the broader societal impacts of basic research to the public and especially to policymakers, the authors argue. The authors encourage researchers, especially academic scientists driven to action by anti-science rhetoric during the Trump administration, to continue to engage in public outreach during the Biden presidency.

“Universities should encourage and incentivize avenues for public engagement through increased support of existing programs or funding new activities for interested faculty, postdocs, graduate students and research staff,” they wrote.

“Building public support for R&D, strengthening trust in scientific institutions and expertise, and increasing scientists’ participation in decision-making related to S&T issues are critical to ensuring that scientific discoveries and innovation benefit the broader public and that increased investment in R&D serves the public interest,” they continued.

The report was a collaboration with two Rice undergraduate students and research interns in the science and technology policy program – Gabriella Hazan and Spoorthi Kamepalli.

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