Commentary: America must invest in its ability to innovate

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In July of 1945, in an America just beginning to establish a postwar identity, former MIT vice president Vannevar Bush set forth a vision that guided the country to decades of scientific dominance and economic prosperity. Bush’s report to the president of the United States, “Science: The Endless Frontier,” called on the government to support basic research in university labs. Its ideas, including the creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF), are credited with helping to make U.S. scientific and technological innovation the envy of the world.

Today, America’s lead in science and technology is being challenged as never before, write MIT President L. Rafael Reif and Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie in an op-ed published today by The Chicago Tribune. They describe a “triple challenge” of bolder foreign competitors, faster technological change, and a merciless race to get from lab to market.

The government’s decision to adopt Bush’s ideas was bold and controversial at the time, and similarly bold action is needed now, they write.

“The U.S. has the fundamental building blocks for success, including many of the world’s top research universities that are at the forefront of the fight against COVID-19,” reads the op-ed. “But without a major, sustained funding commitment, a focus on key technologies and a faster system for transforming discoveries into new businesses, products and quality jobs, in today’s arena, America will not prevail.”

McRobbie and Reif believe a bipartisan bill recently introduced in both chambers of Congress can help America’s innovation ecosystem meet the challenges of the day. Named the “Endless Frontier Act,” the bill would support research focused on advancing key technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing. It does not seek to alter or replace the NSF, but to “create new strength in parallel,” they write. 

The bill would also create scholarships, fellowships, and other forms of assistance to help build an American workforce ready to develop and deploy the latest technologies. And, it would facilitate experiments to help commercialize new ideas more quickly.

“Today’s leaders have the opportunity to display the far-sighted vision their predecessors showed after World War II — to expand and shape of our institutions, and to make the investments to adapt to a changing world,” Reif and McRobbie write.

Both university presidents acknowledge that measures such as the Endless Frontier Act require audacious choices. But if leaders take the right steps now, they write, those choices will seem, in retrospect, obvious and wise.

“Now as then, our national prosperity hinges on the next generation of technical triumphs,” Reif and Mcrobbie write. “Now as then, that success is not inevitable, and it will not come by chance. But with focused funding and imaginative policy, we believe it remains in reach.”

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