Remarks of OSTP Director Arati Prabhakar at the 2023 AAAS Annual Meeting
“Achieving America’s Aspirations: Progress and the Work Ahead”
As Prepared for Delivery in Washington, D.C.
It’s great to be here with you all today.
I want to start our conversation with three ways that science and technology are changing people’s lives right now.
In rural and urban clinics, you will find people who are getting the coaching they need to quit smoking at last — because of President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot.
People in every state are buying electric vehicles and heat pumps, and communities nationwide are deploying wind and solar energy, accelerated by the Inflation Reduction Act — the biggest step ever to meet the climate crisis.
And all across our country, school kids are looking at the James Webb images and then up at the stars, and musing about the origins of our universe.
These are three very different examples of the power of science, technology, and innovation in people’s lives today.
And if we think back at every step in our history, that power has been integral to our progress.
Railroads and electric grids, antibiotics and vaccines, transistors and satellites — it was almost always a bumpy road as these 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 play 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.
Now 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 (R&D), 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.
This is our role at the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and my role as the President’s chief advisor on science and technology: to strengthen, shape, and use science and technology to meet our national purposes.
Again, looking to the past — 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 — advances from smartphones to mRNA vaccines to artificial intelligence, advances 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 or income level, gender identity or sexual orientation, race or ethnicity.
Instead of succumbing to the pessimism of the climate crisis, we aspire to reimagine the infrastructures of our economy and renew our relationship with nature so we 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, a robust democracy.
As we meet this moment, we will be creating a future America that is equitable, that is resilient, that is ambitious.
This is how, as the President says, America will lead with the power of its example.
In many cases, we are making progress, but 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 — 2023 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.
Let me outline four steps we’re taking to advance federal R&D to meet this moment.
The first is to continue and strengthen current federal R&D investments. We can’t take for granted what we already have.
So it’s time to renew the vibrancy of basic research, open participation to a more diverse community of people and institutions, and recommit to the many national purposes behind public R&D spending.
That’s exactly why the Biden-Harris Administration has proposed historic federal investments in American R&D, and will continue to do so.
The second step is to address the gap between our excellent research and the societal impact we seek. That impact reaches people and scales in lots of ways – new products and services, new industries and jobs, new policies and regulations, and new standards and practices and norms.
One example of helping to bridge that gap is the National Science Foundation’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, which is taking some important steps as it helps universities move basic research into commercialization and boosts regional innovation.
Another is under the CHIPS and Science Act. The CHIPS part funded both the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Defense Department to build semiconductor R&D to reinvigorate a critical domestic industry.
The third step is to take aim at bold, barely feasible goals.
One example is President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which is mobilizing people and organizations across government and the private sector to achieve two big goals — to reduce the age-adjusted cancer death rate by at least 50 percent in 25 years, and to improve the experience of patients, families, and caregivers who are dealing with cancer — two very worthy goals that will change millions of lives.
In just one year since the President reignited the Cancer Moonshot, agencies have taken more than 30 specific actions to prevent cancer by cleaning up dangerous Superfund sites, removing lead pipes, and more to detect cancer early; by reaching more veterans and others with screening; to treat cancers; and to reimburse costs for the patient navigation services that can completely change the experience for everyone involved; and change outcomes.
A different kind of example for aiming at bold, barely feasible goals is about adapting the model of DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — to very different national objectives.
DARPA delivers breakthroughs for national security. But its “what does it take” mentality can be harnessed for other big national purposes. It’s a method that pulls innovators together to weave research advances into prototypes and test them in real-world conditions — taking risk, failing, and trying again until a seemingly impossible goal is achieved.
That’s the spirit that President Biden invoked when he launched the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) last year.
The fourth step is to bring the power of R&D to public missions that have not historically been the focus of innovation. Most federal R&D is aimed at national security, health, space, energy, the environment, and our basic research foundation.
But today’s research and technology advances can create possibilities for a much wider array of needs — from K-12 education to workforce training to construction to traffic safety.
And today the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation are exploring how new R&D investments can help to reach better outcomes for their public missions.
Underpinning all four of these steps are equity and ethics — active, deliberate work to engage and benefit people in every part of our society, and active, deliberate work to consider ethical and societal impacts from the start of any effort.
These four steps — strengthening what we have, bridging the gap to impact, reaching for bold goals, and opening innovation for new mission areas — these are the shifts that can position America’s science and technology ecosystem to address our nation’s great aspirations.
And they invite every member of our R&D community to step up to new challenges.
For early-career scientists and engineers, this is an invitation to imagine the future you want to live in and to find or create ways to pursue bold R&D.
For managers and leaders, this is an invitation to lift your teams up by imbuing them with a passion for purpose.
And for every person who seeks to innovate, this is an invitation to bring your personal perspective — reflecting who you are and where you come from — to help shape a future in which every person can thrive.
As President Biden likes to say, “America can be defined by a single word: possibilities.”
This is the work we have the privilege of doing.
Let’s build a future that is equitable, resilient, and ambitious.