In sharply divided times, the president called for ambitious investments in research and technology near the top of his first State of the Union address. Both chambers of Congress have passed bipartisan legislation that would authorize such spending, and the American research enterprise – industry, academia, nonprofits – loudly continues to implore our leaders to secure that funding. One would think that’s a favorable, productive environment for science and technology spending, and yet here we are, stuck in the familiar and damaging cycle of continuing resolutions (CR).
Three CRs and six months past the original deadline, Congress is poised to pass an omnibus spending package to fund the government through the remainder of fiscal year (FY) 2022, providing much-needed investment for key federal research agencies, but falling short of the spirit of innovation investment. I say ‘spirit’ because the authorization levels for science and technology that Congress is currently debating in its dueling competitiveness packages – USICA and COMPETES – are indeed robust but need a partner in timely and equally robust annual research appropriations. It would be absurd to expect us to remain globally competitive when we only start playing the game at halftime of our own fiscal year.
There is no doubt a CR is the lesser of two evils when faced with a government shutdown; however, that does not mean a CR is harmless. Even if we weren’t facing record-high inflation, CRs still effectively diminish agencies’ purchasing power, restrict their ability to fund new projects, and prolong the uncertainty that runs counter to fruitful year-over-year research. In this inflationary environment, CRs are detrimental to the research enterprise while in place and cause lasting damage even after full-year funding is enacted. Assuming the omnibus bill is passed, research agencies – through no fault of their own – will then have half the usual amount of time to decide how to allocate those appropriations. For the U.S. to maintain its position as a global research leader and carry the torch on emerging technology, Congress must stop relying on CRs and instead fund the government at a regular pace.
A reliable federal partnership through research funding will jumpstart the next-generation research that is already underway on university campuses across the country. The CUbit Quantum Initiative, for example, is advancing fundamental science for novel quantum technologies and driving their dissemination, application, and commercialization. CUbit, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder, brings together world-class capabilities and facilities from the university. On the West Coast, a team at Stanford University, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE), is leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to accelerate research around rechargeable batteries.
Quantum computing, AI, and advanced energy technology are all areas Democrats and Republicans have prioritized in bills that finally seek to invigorate the budgets of DOE, NIST, and NSF over the next decade. While this investment would undoubtedly push the bounds of discovery, the nature of fundamental research means we must invest broadly or risk missing out on breakthroughs that could improve our lives and our economy well beyond the bounds of their particular scientific field.
Take the researchers at Binghamton University who recently received grants from the U.S. Air Force’s Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) and the Department of Defense’s Defense University Research Instrumentation Program. They will investigate how 5G technology in conjunction with Blockchain could be used for military surveillance purposes and for potential future civilian applications. AFOSR has also funded a project at Dartmouth College, led by a professor seeking to improve trust between AI machines and humans to optimize their data analysis functions. These new projects could provide key insights in the future, and it is a shame that the same Congress currently seeking to revolutionize research may hinder innovation because it cannot agree on appropriations by the end of each fiscal year.
History shows us innovation is not achieved by accident overnight; predictable, consistent annual federal investment is irreplaceable to sustain promising research. We built the internet and mapped the human genome on the foundation of funding disbursed over decades and if the United States begins to cede its scientific edge, no amount of federal dollars can buy the time needed to recover.
Congress deserves credit for recognizing the role federally funded research plays in our nation’s long-term health and economic vitality. Now, it needs to fund it on schedule.