Science (Op-Ed): Let’s Change What’s Possible

By Arati Prabhakar, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)

America’s science, technology, and innovation ecosystem is a powerful engine for progress, but it was conceived in the last century for last century’s goals. Today, the nation’s aspirations have never been bigger: robust health and ample opportunity for everyone, tackling the climate crisis and using it to reimagine infrastructure and humanity’s relationship with nature, global security and stability, a competitive economy that creates good-paying jobs, and a strong, thriving democracy. The purpose of science and technology is to open the doors that make these aspirations possible. As President Biden said, “We can channel the full talents of all our people into a greater measure of hope and opportunity for our nation and for the world.”

Building that equitable, resilient, and ambitious future starts with federal research and development (R&D). And the magnitude of today’s challenges means that it’s time for purposeful steps that boost the federal R&D enterprise to meet our aspirations. One step is to continue current federal R&D investments, including those in basic research. It’s time to renew the vibrancy of research, open participation to a more diverse community of people and institutions, and recommit to the many national purposes behind public R&D spending, including improving health outcomes, creating more economic opportunity and industries of the future, and strengthening national security. That’s exactly why President Biden has proposed historic federal investments in R&D, including $210 billion in his latest budget released last week.

Another step is addressing the gap between the country’s excellent research and the societal impact we seek: tangible benefits for people in every community to live better lives. To get there, research must translate into new products and services, new industries and jobs, new policies and regulations, and new standards and practices. In this vein, the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships is helping universities move basic research into commercialization and is boosting regional innovation. And under the CHIPS and Science Act, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is building frontier semiconductor R&D to reinvigorate a critical domestic industry.

Additionally, some investments must take aim at bold, barely feasible goals. One example is President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot, which aims to reduce the age-adjusted cancer death rate by at least 50% in 25 years and to improve the experience of patients, families, and caregivers who are dealing with cancer. These challenging goals are mobilizing people and organizations across government and the private sector in ways that will change millions of lives. A complementary example is the adaptation of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) model to build capacity for developing breakthroughs in other sectors. DARPA’s “What does it take?” mentality pulls innovators together to build on each other’s work, take risk, fail, and try 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.

As well, the power of R&D must be brought to missions that have not historically been the focus of innovation. Almost all federal R&D is aimed at national security, space, health, energy, the environment, and the country’s basic research foundation. But today’s research and technological advances can create possibilities for a much wider array of needs—from K-12 education to workforce training to construction to traffic safety. Efforts in the Department of Education and the Department of Transportation are now exploring new R&D investments that can achieve better outcomes for their missions.

These are important shifts, and they invite every member of the 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.

This piece appeared in Science on March, 16 2023.


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