“Science, Technology and Innovation to Achieve America’s Aspirations”
As Prepared for Delivery in Washington, D.C.
Thank you, Gilda [Barabino, president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)]. Thanks for hosting me, and for all that you and AAAS do.
AAAS and the many other organizations here today, the members you represent, and many others here who’ve dedicated their lives to science and technology, your work is so important to our country and to our future. I am deeply honored to be here with all of you.
I also want to call out my colleagues from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, many of whom are with us today, and especially mention Drs. Alondra Nelson and Francis Collins, who shared the duties of this position over the last seven months, for which I’m very grateful.
I returned to public service earlier this month inspired by two statements that President Biden has made many times.
One is the idea that “America can be defined in a single word: possibilities.”
The second is that “We’ve got to prove that democracy works in the 21st century.”
Possibilities and proving our democracy works in today’s complex world —science, technology, and innovation live at the confluence of these two big ideas.
And working at this confluence has been my privilege and my passion throughout my professional life.
So that’s why, when the President asked me to serve as director of OSTP and as his science and technology advisor and a member of his Cabinet, it was a “run, don’t walk” moment for me.
The nexus of possibilities and America’s success are what I want to talk about with you today.
We’re meeting at a pivotal point for science and technology in the United States.
After years of talk and debate, some big moves are afoot.
You’ve seen the extraordinary accomplishments of the Biden-Harris Administration and this 117th Congress. We are moving out to deploy and build.
The Inflation Reduction Act is accelerating the deployment of clean energy and nature-based solutions to get us on the path to mitigate and adapt to climate change — the biggest climate investment we’ve ever made.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is getting broadband and lead-free clean water to every part of our country, and it’s building the infrastructure for our future.
The CHIPS part of the CHIPS and Science Act will get leading-edge semiconductor manufacturing back in the United States, so the manufacturing that’s critical for supply chains and jobs isn’t dangerously concentrated in one part of the world.
Each of these big laws pushes the fruits of earlier science and technology out into the world — deploys them, scales them, makes sure they reach all Americans.
And each of these laws also funds and calls for more and different kinds of science and technology as well, at the Department of Energy and other agencies in the big climate bill, at multiple departments in the infrastructure law, and in the CHIPS and Science Act, at the Departments of Commerce and Defense and Energy and at the National Science Foundation.
In addition to all of these, last year’s appropriations boosted federal R&D across many, many R&D agencies, and it kick-started ARPA-H, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.
And while there is plenty to be said about each of these pieces, today I want to step back and cast these significant actions in the context of the role of science and technology in our country. This country that was founded on such expansive hopes for the future. This country that was founded on the revolutionary idea that the people have the power to make and keep remaking a country, crafting it to represent their values and achieve their purposes.
The preamble of the Constitution laid out these purposes: In the language of its time, it spoke of justice and domestic tranquility, the common defense and the general welfare.
For 235 years, as the world has changed and changed again, we have pursued these goals.
And at every step, science and technology — research, experimentation, and innovation — have been integral to our progress.
Railroads and electric grids, antibiotics and vaccines, transistors and satellites — it was almost always a bumpy road as these kinds of new technologies disrupted the status quo. But in time, these and many more new capabilities fundamentally recast the world we inhabit.
Of course, we understand that every major advance for a society takes much more than just science and technology.
It takes communities driving change to move forward. It takes thoughtful policies. It takes companies that deliver products and services to market.
But science and technology plays one particular role in this ecology of progress — and that is to change what’s possible.
Science and technology open doors so we can step beyond the limitations of today into a different tomorrow, into a better tomorrow.
The science and technology capability that we have here in the United States today — fueled by the $700 billion we spend annually on research and development, public and private combined — this is the most powerful engine for innovation in history. And that did not happen by accident.
Our innovation capacity is both organic and directed. We got here through millions of choices made by people in universities, companies, nonprofits, and government agencies. We got here with collaborations with our partners and allies globally. And all of those individual actions were shaped by successive generations of national strategies.
Vannevar Bush was the great architect of American science and technology to meet our country’s aspirations in the last century. And I like to think that if he could walk in our world, he would beam to see the world’s greatest basic research enterprise in our universities and national labs, and massive industries built on advances in science and technology, beyond even his prolific imagination.
But I also suspect he would then turn to us and demand to know what we are doing to move our science and technology system forward, so that it meets the aspirations of our century.
Because at this pivotal point for our country, we have immense aspirations.
Instead of accepting today’s poor health outcomes, we aspire to a future in which everyone in America can live a long and healthy life, irrespective of zip code, gender, and race.
Instead of succumbing to the pessimism of the climate crisis, we aspire to a future in which the reimagined infrastructures of our economy mitigate and manage a shifting climate, build resilience, and eliminate inequities.
Instead of tolerating the notion that the American dream has faded for too many, we aspire to be a nation where every individual has the opportunity to achieve their full potential.
We seek a future with global security and stability, despite the immense changes shaking our world.
We reach for a future with competitive industries and robust supply chains to create good-paying jobs that support families.
We strive for a robust and representative democracy that protects individual rights and meets the foundational needs of all Americans with dignity and equity.
These are the great unsolved challenges of our times: health, climate, opportunity, competitive industries, security, and a robust democracy.
This is how, as the President says, America will lead with the power of its example.
In many cases, we are making progress. But often the scale of our advances can seem incremental. The pace of progress can seem glacial.
And that’s our why. That’s why our country needs science and technology.
Our job is to open doors so that the scale of our advances matches the magnitude of our challenges.
Our job is to accelerate the pace of progress to match the urgency of the moment.
Our job is to make America’s aspirations possible.
Now, stepping up to this moment is a tall order. And it’s not an order for just more of the same — 2022 is not 1945.
It will require a great deal from every part of our science and technology community.
It’s going to push us and sometimes make us uncomfortable. But I know we are capable of meeting the challenge that’s before us.
I want to lay out three shifts we must make, and give you some examples of very encouraging work that’s already underway for each of them.
The first shift is to build a “what does it take” mindset.
Much of our discussion of science and technology is about individual research advances that can chip away at our great challenges. But to make real progress on the great aspirations before us, we need to add another perspective.
Our community broadly, but especially those of us engaged in national science and technology strategy, must ask “what does it take” to get to the goal, not just what might make a contribution.
“What does it take” thinking starts by deeply considering the goal, diagnosing what stands between us and achieving it, and then charting a course that considers everything it will take to get there.
“What does it take” action picks points of leverage, the places where if we can make advances, the rest of the puzzle pieces can fall into place. It pursues those advances, and brings along everyone whose mind has to change for the full goal to be accomplished.
Today, we have many cases where we are already building our capacity for “what does it take” thinking and action. And I’ll share a few very different examples here.
Earlier this year, President Biden reignited the Cancer Moonshot, which we lead from OSTP.
The Cancer Moonshot has set two hard and worthy goals: Reduce the age-adjusted cancer death rate by half within the next 25 years, doubling the rate of progress; and improve the experience of patients and their families facing cancer.
These are goals that require the adoption of practices we already know work so they reach every person, and research that can lead to wholly new approaches. They are goals that require boosting prevention and early detection and treatments. They are goals that require companies, healthcare providers, researchers, communities to pull together and focus on outcomes beyond their narrow incentives and interests. And they are goals that, when met, will change the lives of many millions of people and the families who love them.
CHIPS also has a “what does it take” approach.
After four decades of observing the globalization and then the dangerous concentration of semiconductor manufacturing outside the United States, we are now taking significant action, teaming with industry to build factories and jobs and supply chains here in America.
And as we do this work, we have the opportunity to reinvigorate the virtuous cycle of leading-edge R&D coupling with strong manufacturing. That’s how to help a pivotal and fast-changing industry thrive here at home now and into the future.
OSTP, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Department of Commerce, are leading this effort, again, working with many agencies and private sector groups.
It’s rooted in the understanding that nature plays an immense role in our climate but also in every other aspect of our lives.
Think about the biodiversity that provides pollination for 75 percent of the major crops around the world, or the forests that purify our water, or barrier islands and wetlands that protect us from increasingly frequent storm surges.
What does it take to stop eroding nature that we depend on for so much in our lives?
It starts by accounting for the economic value of land and water, fish and forests, and other natural assets, rather than effectively counting nature as zero on the balance sheet, which is where we are today.
Because when policymakers and markets have quantitative measures of assets, they have a solid foundation for taking the actions that are needed to protect what we value so dearly.
These examples of “what does it take” thinking and action illustrate how broadly and deeply we will rely on science and technology.
In each case, we need scientific research — the new knowledge that provides fresh insights and deep understanding.
And as important as that research is, it isn’t enough. We also need to knit different research advances together into prototype solutions and rigorously experiment with them in real-world settings.
And when bold new approaches work, we need to make sure they are adopted, implemented, and scaled so that they benefit all Americans.
That means commercialization, and it also means new policies and incentives.
It means new standards and practices and norms.
This too is part of “what does it take” thinking.
The other two shifts that we must make to meet this moment are integral to everything we do. They cut across every aspect of the work of science and technology.
One is about equity. The purpose that drives us is to create a better future for all Americans, and that means dealing head on with the entrenched inequities that exist in our country today.
And here too we are taking important steps forward, from boosting STEM education for kids of all backgrounds to new regional innovation initiatives.
Through these efforts, we’re being far more deliberate about opening the opportunities of science and technology to people in every zip code in America.
It’s the right thing to do.
And as we move in this direction, we will reap the benefit of more brainpower and more diverse perspectives and experiences.
We are also starting to use the power of science and technology to improve equity more broadly.
As we combine the power of data and data science with the deep understanding of the social sciences, we are developing a more detailed understanding of inequities across our communities and the factors behind these unacceptable outcomes.
And we are starting to be able to better design policies to achieve equity. The Biden-Harris Administration’s Equitable Data effort is a part of this important movement.
The other shift that is integral to all aspects of S&T is the consideration of societal implications.
All of our work is aimed at bringing forth potent new capabilities. And so we have to understand that when they burst on the scene, their power is raw — it’s mighty yet neutral.
It’s our very human choices that determine how the story turns out. We can use innovation to protect or discriminate, teach or misinform, heal or harm, build or topple.
So thinking through these implications has to become much more deeply ingrained in our work.
A live example today is what’s happening with data, automation and artificial intelligence. They are everywhere in our lives.
We already rely on them, and they tantalize us with the new capabilities they offer. But it isn’t yet clear how we will use these advances to support and reinforce our values.
And we already have clear cases in which they are eroding the values we hold dear: privacy, security, equal opportunity, civil rights — these are the bedrock of our democracy.
That’s why it is imperative that we understand how to use these new capabilities.
And that’s exactly what OSTP is driving at with our recently released Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights, which provides the core principles, and also practical guidelines and examples, to guide our development and use of AI.
It’s an excellent example of stepping up to the great responsibility that comes with the great privilege we all have of doing this work.
Now, I’ve laid out some big shifts, daunting shifts for our science and technology community.
And I’ve laid out our country’s aspirations — aspirations so immense they can sometimes seem nearly impossible.
So let me finish by telling you why I know we can meet this moment.
First, I know it because I know how fertile, nimble, and capable our research enterprise is.
The work of biology, chemistry, physics; of all the engineering disciplines; of the environmental sciences and the health sciences; of mathematics and of computer science and of data science; of the social and behavioral sciences — all of these fields are generating the raw stuff from which we can fashion progress.
Second, I know we can succeed because I know how effective our public and private capabilities can be when they are at their best.
We’ve just seen such significant action at the federal level. We have markets that are extraordinarily efficient at putting massive resources to work in pursuit of profits and growth. We have a growing social sector that is stepping up to the problems that require civil society.
And third, I know we can succeed because I know how deep our values run.
This is a country built on the idea of reaching for a better future, built on the idea that we can take risks, stumble, and try again, built on the idea that every person must get a fair shot.
If we do this right, together we can make it possible to succeed at the great experiment that tests the most inspiring hypothesis of all.
The idea that We the People can form a more perfect union, and can secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.
This is our privilege.
This is our responsibility.
And I am deeply grateful to work with all of you to achieve America’s aspirations.