America’s Future Lies in Technical Alliances

by Melissa Flagg

In 1945, scientist and innovator Vannevar Bush achieved a historical first: Recognizing the crucial role of science and technology in national security and the public good, he developed a technical strategy for post-war America. It is the only time in our nation’s history that we articulated and implemented a clear, achievable, top-down strategy for the federal role in research and development (R&D) and how that role related to the broader U.S. ecosystem.

The context has changed sufficiently from that moment more than half a century ago, and we must reassess. We now live in a world saturated with trained scientists and engineers who enjoy access to the tools and infrastructure of science and a rapidly growing pool of funding. Scientific knowledge has also expanded globally; by some counts, it has doubled every nine years in the post-World War II era. Nations see R&D as a strategic driver of economic and national security, with well over 40 countries now producing strategies for science, technology and/or innovation.

And yet, every week seems to bring fresh commentary in the national security sphere about how the competition for power in the world hinges on R&D; that the nation to “dominate” will not only set the standards and norms for the next century, but will be the prevailing military leader.

More often than not, this position narrows the focus to a bilateral competition between the United States and China, comparing funding and growth rates, but leaving out the shifting global context.

The result? A predominant mood of pessimism and declinism, a narrative that we are losing a bipolar competition, and a perpetual search for an easy answer requiring no fundamental change.

These frameworks ignore the tremendous expansion of global R&D beyond China, as well as the uniqueness of America’s R&D ecosystem, which has no single point of failure and draws strength from its incredible diversity of contributors, funders and innovators. The United States has always been a nation of tensions – one that embraces creativity, stimulates an aggressive competition of ideas and believes in a race to dream, build and sell incredible technical and industrial innovations.

Narrow bilateral framing can lead us to ask an incomplete set of questions when we should be asking far more: How do we harness the global power of like-minded nations to ensure a future where we are all capable of competing? And how do we leverage the power of the American innovation ecosystem, embracing the inefficiencies stemming naturally from bottom-up creativity while driving towards a more secure future?

Now is the time to shake off the constraints of Cold War frameworks and recognize the power of R&D as a cornerstone of the modern global landscape and of our domestic strength. If we want to write the rules of competition for the next century, we must fundamentally rethink our international and domestic concept of alliances and marshal the full might of our democratic systems. Yet in doing so, we must not allow adversaries to set the rules or simply try to compete on their terms.

This situation calls for a new era of alliances. It must begin with a more expansive concept of what this means, one that reaches beyond a narrow definition of treaties to include the very definition of an alliance: joining together in activities that leverage R&D and the broader technical foundations to ensure that global norms continue to support open and free societies. We need coalitions of partners with significant roles in the global R&D system willing to engage in broader goals of security. Technically-driven alliances are required to focus on harnessing and securing our collective R&D advantage, while freeing up the movement of technical talent among partner states and protecting supply chains. It will require a balance between competition and collaboration to sustain a leadership position for like-minded nations and ensure that autocratic values do not become a new foundation for global norms and standards.

Other countries have seen the power of the U.S. technical engine and invested in their own R&D. Global R&D investment has more than tripled in the last 20 years from approximately $675B in 2000 to more than $2.19T in 2018 – with some forecasts of $2.3T for 2019. The U.S. R&D investment also grew significantly from $270B in 2000 to $543B in 2018, and while that trend continues (largely driven by sustained industrial investment), we must consider new strategies for success in a world where roughly half of R&D investment is neither the United States nor our primary technical competitor, China.

Our future lies in alliances. Adding the R&D spending of the United States and just six like-minded nations, we quickly leverage more than 52% of global R&D investment. With 14 nations, we reach more than 60% and with 20 nations, two-thirds of global R&D. China, on the other hand, makes up 25% of global R&D with other nations of concern like Russia and Iran contributing only another 2%.

But money is only one perspective; another key dimension of the problem is talent. The United States educates the largest number of science and engineering doctorates globally – more than 45,000 in 2015, up from 28,000 in 2000. A common criticism is that a large portion of that group are not citizens. However, the reality is that more than 30,000 of those PhDs were U.S. citizens, and two-thirds of the roughly 15,000 international students were from high-tech, value-aligned nations. We are educating an innovative generation, and with strong alliances, we can leverage an even larger pool of future talent.

The numbers suggest that competing in this technologically saturated world will mean recognizing that R&D is ubiquitous, that no nation will have complete global technological dominance, and that democratic values will only survive if we embrace alliances.

International alliances are the clearest path to a future that not only recognizes the new global landscape, but embraces America’s traditional role in sustaining global democratic values. Such alliances cannot simply be built on the foundation of the postwar order; rather, our current environment demands new sets of relationships, fresh approaches to talent flows and a willingness to play as part of a team rather than a lone runner in a marathon against the world. It requires us to consider technical alliances a serious pillar of power instead of an afterthought in our diplomatic efforts.

Will alliances focus on specific supply chains? Will they emerge among nations with common workforce needs best served by the free movement of talent? Will they focus on infrastructure or norms and standards that set the stage for democratic values to flourish? As the contours of these alliances emerge, this is the moment to ask the hard questions.

Alliances will not only be required abroad, but also at home if we are to wield the full weight of American R&D on behalf of economic competitiveness and national security.  Of the more than $550 billion the United States invests each year, only roughly one-quarter originates from federal funding. More than 75% of U.S. R&D funding comes from other sources, including industry, philanthropy, academic endowments and the states. While political polarization has led to each party supporting different parts of the R&D ecosystem, in reality it must all be cared for to sustain our status as a global leader.

Much like a farmer would never sacrifice the long-term health of his soil for a single bumper crop, nor would he worry so much about that soil that he never produced a crop for sale, we must think of education, creation and innovation as a sometimes fraught and often chaotic balance. We need all of our actors healthy, contributing and leading at different times and in varying roles. But doing this requires a deep understanding of the forces driving or hindering contributors. The future of American R&D may call for new concepts and frameworks for consortia where the federal government sometimes leads, sometimes follows and sometimes simply watches.

This is the moment to embrace the pivotal methods Vannevar Bush used rather than continuing to execute his prescriptions to a problem set that no longer exists. This is a moment to call brilliant minds to study, assess the full range of problems and spend time getting the questions right.  Science policy is needed, but the challenge is bigger than crafting industrial policy or funding basic science; it will require bringing a group together that cuts across international relations, economics, industrial policy, research and history. We need to assess the state of our R&D ecosystem, the goals for long-term competition and the tools we have to lift up and synchronize our scientific and innovation capabilities, recognizing that they are connected and interdependent. We need to create fora to identify areas of synergy and develop novel mechanisms for collaboration across divisions of funding, sector, state and nation. We must identify those few opportunities where governments can commit to actions that will have the broadest impact across the many challenges we face.

I am not so naïve to believe that every group will want to participate, but we are early in a long war of influence among great powers. Believing the United States can win this war alone – or by merely reverting to Cold War alliances – ignores reality.

This next century calls on us to dream a new American strategy – one that embraces R&D as a fundamental enabler, blends leadership with alliances, collaboration with competition and establishes a strategy embracing the full power of America’s innovation ecosystem. Let’s commit to a hopeful articulation of a global future founded on democratic values and fueled by technical innovation.

Dr. Melissa Flagg is a senior fellow with the Center for Security and Emerging Technology (CSET) at Georgetown University.

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