The Perils of Complacency

A Final Observation

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New Models for U.S. Science and Technology Policy

If the United States is to continue to be a leader in the increasingly competitive global markets that now characterize the 21st century, the pace of American innovation – translation of discoveries and inventions from laboratory research to products – will have to accelerate. That industry will focus its R&D investments on meeting relatively immediate challenges is understandable and makes it all the more important that the federal government accelerate its own investment in research, especially basic research in all fields of science, engineering, medicine, and mathematics, encouraging truly bold ideas and funding projects that have a low probability of obvious success at the time of funding but have the potential to be transformative in the long term. Lowering the barriers to industry-university collaboration will then make it much easier for those pathbreaking discoveries to move quickly into applications, including commercial products, markets, economic growth, and high-paying jobs.

To predict, with any confidence, what new capabilities science and technology will bring in the decades ahead is impossible. But to see how different our lives would be today without the contribution of science and technology in the past decades is not difficult: no smartphones, high-definition TV, laptops, electric and hybrid cars, magnetic resonance imaging, artificial joints, stents, laser eye surgery, or vaccines for diseases such as polio. Nor would the world have e-commerce, GPS in its cars, or cures for hepatitis C. Without advances in science and technology and private-sector innovation, the world will not develop cleaner methods of power generation, adapt to climate change, or conquer future diseases. And without advances in science, COVID-19 will not be conquered.

Not every scientific discovery or technological innovation will have its origin in the United States, nor does it need to do so. This makes international scientific cooperation vital to American interests. But unless the United States remains a leading contributor to the discovery of new knowledge and has the capacity and the will to translate that knowledge into applications, Americans and America will be left behind, isolated, and increasingly impoverished in a 21st-century world powered by science and technology. A great opportunity will have been lost.

The committee preparing this report has sought to balance, insofar as possible, the critical need for enhanced investment in research and development with the severe budgetary pressures that will be faced in the years ahead.