Opinion

In the U.S.-China Competition Over Science and Technology, Only One Is In the Running

America’s scientists work across borders, collaborating with academic and industry researchers and building on each other’s discoveries, no matter where in the world they are.

At the same time, competition propels science. America’s Cold War duel with the Soviet Union resulted in the United States’ putting the first human on the moon. A public-private rivalry led to the sequencing of the human genome. And a race to the finish among dozens of companies and research teams gave us COVID-19 vaccines in record time.

Competition among scientists and nations could end Alzheimer’s disease, cancer and AIDS, keep our nation technologically secure and help us feed and power the world as we address climate change. But instead of investing in the science and technology to maintain our competitive edge, U.S. investments are waning as China’s advantage has grown. With China recently announcing a new national development plan to bolster scientific and technological achievements, the United States is not in the running in the competition between the two nations unless the federal government makes funding research and development and STEM education a bigger priority than it has been for decades.

The threat is growing day by day. Beijing’s spending on research and development, across scientific fields and areas of technology, has grown by 17 percent a year over the past 20 years. The country’s researchers publish more papers each year than ours do, and China holds the most patent grants of any nation. America’s total research and development dollars remain greater than any other nation’s, but the proportion of federal discretionary spending that goes to R&D has fallen dramatically for 20 years. Even before China unveiled its new plan, some experts were predicting that China would outpace us in total R&D spending within the next decade.

Our underinvestment will cost us dearly. Without innovation writ large, the United States will forfeit our position of leadership and the many benefits — the high-skilled research, engineering and manufacturing jobs — that flow from these investments. And if we lag in the science and technologies most tied to the future, we risk never being able to catch up.

A prime example is China’s decision more than a decade ago to make massive investments in clean energy, while the United States did not go far enough in federal support of these technologies. Today, China leads the world in solar energy, boasting more than a third of global capacity in solar, and is far ahead of us in solar and wind energy storing technology. Some observers already say China has beaten us, making it difficult for the Biden administration to create clean energy jobs and push the transition to cleaner energy.

Similarly, America’s lead on artificial intelligence technology may be diminishing, according to a new report to Congress and the White House. And China’s moves to share gene-sequencing technology during the pandemic could have long-term consequences for U.S. national security.

To compete with China in a race to build the scientific knowledge of the future, the United States needs greater leadership, strategy and investment. President Joe Biden has already modernized the nation’s approach to science by making his science advisor and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy a member of the Cabinet. In addition, we must stay ahead of China’s investments in science. Over the next five years, we must double federal expenditure for R&D and STEM education, raising it from 0.7 percent to 1.4 percent of gross domestic product — an estimated $380 billion in Year 5.

We also need a comprehensive federal science and technology strategy that unleashes focused R&D efforts and public-private sector collaboration to meet the daunting threats we face. Such a plan would not mandate the work of America’s science and technology labs — which are the envy of the world. Rather, it would ensure federal R&D dollars are well-spent by cutting bureaucracy, bolstering cross-agency and cross-disciplinary collaboration, fueling public-private sector partnerships and ensuring we’re competing in the areas of innovation that matter most.

As former members of Congress, we understand the many tough funding choices lawmakers face today. We also know investing in R&D has historically boosted growth of high-wage jobs across the United States. One analysis found that public R&D investment in 2018 directly and indirectly supported more than 1.6 million jobs, with average compensation 83 percent higher than in the overall economy. These investments produced $126 billion in labor income, $197 billion in added economic value and $39 billion in federal and state tax revenue.

Appropriate and smart funding of science is good for the economy and for American workers, and it’s the only way to stay ahead of the competition — from China and elsewhere. Otherwise, we leave our competitors to make thousands of discoveries and innovations that could have been made in America. Let’s commit to winning the discovery race to serve the greater interests of the United States and the world.

 

Charlie Dent is the executive director of the Aspen Institute Congressional Program and a former Republican representative for Pennsylvania’s 15th Congressional District. Bart Gordon is a partner at K&L Gates and a former Democratic representative for Tennessee’s 6th Congressional District and former chair of the House Science Committee. They are members of the Science and Technology Action Committee, a nonpartisan group of individuals who support urgent action to promote science and technology research, development and education in the United States.

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