Op Ed / Essays

Closing America's Innovation Deficit

Monday, April 28, 2014
The National Interest

Imagine a world where nanoparticle “smart bombs” selectively destroy cancer cells. Where batteries made by nontoxic viruses unleash the full potential of alternative energy. And where synthetic biofuels power our cars and free us from fossil fuels.

This is not the stuff of science fiction. It’s a glimpse of our world in the near future – but only if we make good on the promise of a remarkable technology revolution now underway.

This revolution will transform the 21st century as profoundly as computers transformed the 20th century. A convergence of engineering and biology taking place in laboratories across the country is delivering game-changing advances in medicine, energy, agriculture, and more. The new products and industries it spawns could bring about unprecedented improvement in the quality of life for families across America and beyond.

At a time when millions of households are struggling in the wake of the Great Recession, this convergence offers a proven pathway to economic revitalization.

The problem is that Washington policies are squandering this potential.

Technological breakthroughs aren’t cheap. Federal investment – a lynchpin of last century’s advances – are imperative. The ROI is undeniable, yet R&D funding streams have fallen victim to Washington’s political dysfunction. The sad reality is that U.S. investment in research is declining substantially just as other nations are doubling down.

In fact, the government’s lead agency for breakthroughs in life sciences, the National Institutes for Health (NIH), has seen its purchasing power fall by 25% in the past decade. Sequestration has exacerbated the problem, putting NIH on a path to lose $19 billion if the austerity continues for 10 years. In the name of closing the budget deficit, we are widening America’s innovation deficit – and depriving ourselves of the very source of economic growth we so sorely need.

It’s decline by design, and Congress is taking notice. On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee is holding a hearing called “Driving Innovation through Federal Investments.” More than 100 organizations have already submitted testimony.

To win the future, we must first win the argument to reverse our short-sighted cuts to scientific research. We can start by recalling the technological triumphs of our past.

Today, we all benefit from stunning advances in technology after World War II. These advances grew out of an explosion of discoveries in physics and chemistry at the beginning of the 20th century. The discovery of electrons led to the invention of vacuum tubes, transistors, and silicon computer chips that enabled the electronics and computer industries; understanding forces inside the atom gave rise to the nuclear power industry; unraveling the chemistry of oil and gas refining produced not only our major source of energy but also the feedstock for modern plastics, synthetic fabrics, and fertilizers. Together, these technology advances drove more than half of America’s economic growth after 1945.

As the convergence of physics and engineering in the 20th century produced the computer chip, the Internet, and now more connected mobile devices than there are people on the planet, the accelerating convergence of life sciences and engineering is giving rise to a new era of “personalized” medicine, minimally invasive diagnosis and treatment of cancers and other deadly diseases, and even synthetic body parts and organs. Already, we see its benefits in magnetic resonance imaging and materials that release drugs over extended time periods. In the future, newly designed materials combined with emerging nanotechnologies hold the dual promise of diagnosing cancer and other diseases early and without surgery, and of reducing unwanted side effects by delivering drugs directly to the site of disease.

The products of this century’s technologies extend well beyond biomedicine, with the potential to transform industry in unexpected directions. Already, biomanufacturing deploys the compact intelligence of cells, nature’s factories, to make pharmaceuticals, but other products are now in development, from virus-synthesized batteries to electrofuels.

Like most revolutions, the convergence of the life, physical, and engineering sciences will not take place over a day or a year. It began decades ago, but it is poised to accelerate dramatically. There is no better way to add jobs, cut the deficit, and overcome a budget stalemate than robust economic growth. And there is no better way to precipitate growth than investing in innovation.   

There is today a full-fledged global competition for innovation. Our public policy choices today will either handicap or accelerate our place in this race. Are we ready to seize the moment?

In the last half-century, federal-funded basic research paired with federally encouraged investment capital made America the undisputed leader in discovery, innovation, and company development stemming from new technologies. Recent trends suggest our government’s commitment to this two-tiered strategy is flagging. From 2007 to 2012, the compound annual growth rate of inflation-adjusted biomedical R&D expenditures declined by 2%. Over the same period it increased by more than 30% in China.

The 21st century’s convergence has untold potential to drive a new cycle of innovation-based economic growth. Cutting investments in this convergence is the definition of penny-wise and pound-foolish. Through sustained support of early-stage research and policies that encourage long-cycle, capital-intensive industries, we can fulfill the promise of delivering life-changing technologies and economic growth. Let’s seize the opportunity to unleash the potential of the 21st century’s technology revolution.