February’s announcement by the National Institutes of Health, the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, and major pharmaceutical companies of an ambitious partnership to help accelerate the discovery of new diagnostics and drug treatments is a promising step forward for strengthening America’s scientific research enterprise. The partnership among government, universities, and industry is the cornerstone of research and innovation in this nation. However, securing a prosperous economic future in the face of increased global competition will require a more cooperative strategic working relationship among these three sectors than currently exists.
Many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle seem to agree. Yet this task is enormously challenging. It will require two things: (i) strong bipartisan agreement on the importance of U.S. science and technology (S&T) and the long-term investment in federally funded research, especially that carried out in our universities; and (ii) policy reform in all sectors, including changes in America’s federal S&T policy-making apparatus that today focuses on short-term political and economic considerations rather than on the nation’s future needs in a rapidly changing world. In short, we need a plan.
U.S. leadership in S&T is threatened by policies and policy-making mechanisms that were put in place during the Cold War, well before the onset of the information revolution and widespread globalization. This is not because U.S. presidents and Congressional leaders in recent decades have not tried. The problem is systemic, making it difficult to implement even the most basic reforms on issues ranging from removing needless regulatory barriers to government-university cooperation to raising the limits on H1-B visas and green cards to updating the Bayh-Dole legislation to aligning the missions of federal agencies and national laboratories to meet today’s challenges.
In fact, we argue that America has not had an effective national S&T plan for many decades, and that needs to change. Suppose we had one, what might it look like?
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