America’s strengths in science, engineering, and technology are at the heart of our nation’s prosperity and our hope for solving the world’s most pressing challenges, including climate change and economic growth. And yet, over the years, the federal government has invested little in science and technology.
Now, there is a great opportunity for us to succeed, and we must make the most of it.
The federal CHIPS and Science (CHIPS) Act, enacted with bipartisan support last summer, puts the United States on a path toward greater investment in high-tech research and development (R&D), marking a historic break.
According to the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in 22 of the 28 years prior to 2018, government R&D spending on science and technology made up a smaller share of gross domestic product (GDP) than the year before, down to 0.61 percent of GDP. GDP in 2018, the lowest level since 1955. Now that trend will be reversed.
The need for reinvestment is real. Overall, US R&D spending as a percentage of total GDP ranks 10th in the world, behind capable, ambitious competitors such as Germany, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea. China’s investment in R&D has more than doubled since 2010 and could surpass US investment within the decade. In other areas including artificial intelligence, electronics, and clean energy, China has already begun to overtake the US as the world leader, thanks to years of efforts to become a global leader.
The CHIPS Act will also help combat climate change, creating $67 billion in funding for climate science research and zero-emission energy sources. A low-carbon energy future requires the US to lead the world in energy technologies that are clean, sustainable, reliable, and affordable – including nuclear fusion, which has only recently happened after years of investment in R&D. Increasing US R&D in domestic energy technology is an important step in reducing energy costs and improving our national security.
We also have an infrastructure problem. According to a recent ASME paper, America’s electrical industry is threatened by aging infrastructure and physical and cyber attacks. Also, it is difficult to integrate next-generation technologies into the existing network of regional grids. The energy projects initiated by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 — and the necessary changes to the way we license energy projects — are sound ways to advance our economic and national security.
Another important step is to expand the R&D capabilities of America’s nuclear science programs to include those at many universities in Illinois and the rest of the country. This would help meet the workforce needs of the US nuclear industry while accelerating the development of safe, zero-emission, low-cost nuclear power across the country.
Mr. Biden’s 2024 budget request — which is being finalized now before being released in February — should call for funding for both CHIPS Act programs and existing R&D programs. The new Congress must follow through and continue this historic era by investing in science and technology. This should not be a party issue.
Given the current uncertainty in global affairs, the United States cannot afford to sit back and take its technological capabilities for granted.
Rep. Sean Casten represents the west and southwest side of Chicagoland. He is an advocate for legislation to promote R&D in nuclear power technology and to promote safety in R&D programs. Tom Costabile is executive director/CEO of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME.org), which helps the global engineering community find solutions to real-world problems.