The Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 appropriations season might be best encapsulated with the plot of a movie we’ve all seen before. The clock is ticking, the villain is catching up, and the heroine has to make a risky, split-second decision to save the world. It goes without saying that everything works out perfectly in the end. On Capitol Hill, however, it’s harder to see how the battle for funding, especially for science and technology, will conclude. With the end of the fiscal year fast approaching, it’s time for Congress to settle up and take decisive action for our future.
In theory, the decision over how much to invest in U.S.-led fundamental research and development (R&D) is an easy one. History speaks for itself. Since the National Science Foundation (NSF) was created over 70 years ago, it and other federal research agencies have firmly established the U.S. as the global leader in innovation and discovery. Thanks to federal investment in research, we can count touch screens, the MRI, and modern lasers among our ubiquitous homegrown achievements. Looking around the corner, we already know new and emerging technologies are the next frontier in R&D. If we’re going to meet the moment and beat out our global competitors, we must come prepared – and that means investing federal dollars.
Congress took a step in the right direction last year by passing the CHIPS and Science Act, which authorizes billions of dollars in funding to supercharge American innovation in a host of new and emerging technologies. But we’re not the only ones with our eye on the ball. While the U.S. remains at the top for domestic R&D expenditures, other countries, including China, Japan, and Germany, are catching up. In fact, a report issued in March found China is outpacing the U.S. and other democratic nations in 37 of 44 technology research areas considered advanced and critical. We’ve got CHIPS, but the rubber will only truly meet the road when legislators appropriate the funding to achieve its aims.
This year, that’s no small task. The Fiscal Responsibility Act suspended the debt ceiling until 2025 and mandated statutory limits on discretionary spending, which includes funding for scientific research. With those limits set – and many competing priorities therein – it’s of paramount importance that Congress maximize funding allocations to support federal research agencies and new CHIPS-related projects. Time is of the essence, and if we wait too long on R&D, we will not get another chance to win the race for the future.
Just a cursory look at how federal dollars are already being invested in university R&D demonstrates what’s on the line. New Energy New York (NENY), a project led by Binghamton University focused on battery innovation, is a finalist in NSF’s inaugural Regional Innovation Engines competition, which itself was launched by NSF’s new Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships (TIP) and authorized in CHIPS. If funded, NENY-SE would convene researchers, students, and industry to find innovative solutions to energy storage challenges while fueling local economies. At Princeton University, NSF-funded researchers just discovered the first known de novo protein that catalyzes the synthesis of quantum dots, potentially opening the door for the sustainable and affordable production of nanomaterials in electronics.
Across the country, Washington State University Regents Professor and Director of ASCENT, the FAA’s Aviation Sustainability Center, Michael Wolcott co-authored the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge Roadmap, a plan to rapidly increase American production of sustainable aviation fuel. The project, which was funded by the Department of Energy, USDA, EPA, and Department of Transportation, would reduce emissions from the aviation sector and shore up supply chains at home to establish the U.S. as the leader among a network of stakeholders. Wolcott previously noted a lack of government investment as the primary barrier to kickstarting this innovation.
Those are just three of the countless projects underway or on the horizon put in motion by federal research funding. Clearly, the issue of U.S. competitiveness is not for lack of inspiration or motivation. It’s also not a voter issue. In fact, a recent poll from The Science Coalition found American voters overwhelmingly support federal research investment even in hard fiscal times and fear the U.S. is losing ground to other global competitors.
There’s no doubt federal dollars must be spent responsibly, but they should also be invested advantageously. Federally funded R&D is the foundation of our competitive edge, and an area on which most of us agree. With time running out and the House and Senate taking divergent approaches to FY24 appropriations, we could end up missing out on this opportunity. To win in the long run, legislators must take bold action now by passing timely legislation to secure robust, predictable increases for federally funded research. It’s too soon for the credits to roll on the U.S. research enterprise.