Policy for the U.S. research and development (R&D) system is still guided by ideas and institutions dating to the years after World War II. Yet the system has undergone fundamental change—both domestically and internationally—in the intervening 75 years. For America to maintain a leadership role in global R&D into the future, policymakers cannot simply repeat the solutions of the past. Instead, the United States needs a new, more systematic approach to R&D policy to leverage and optimize the diversity of the current system, to better manage the risks of an increasingly dispersed system, and to more effectively deliver the benefits of R&D to society. This policy brief offers a few examples of recommendations for a new and evolving role of the U.S. federal government in R&D.
- We provide a new framework for understanding the U.S. R&D ecosystem in terms of various actors and their inputs, and recommend full development of this framework to better leverage all domestic and partner R&D capabilities.
- The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) should lead the development of a new policy framework for the future of U.S. R&D, with a mandate to engage beyond the federal government, including state and local governments, industry, philanthropies, academia, and international partners.
- The federal government should support the creation of a real-time, open-source global R&D scanning capability to understand discoveries and developments in R&D around the world and make this capability and its outputs available across the R&D system.
- The federal government should undertake an inventory and gap analysis of the infrastructure needed for future R&D, including critical facilities and compute capabilities.
- The United States should work to preserve the benefits of open collaboration while prioritizing and maintaining national security, ensuring that different classes of institutions within the R&D system have fit-for-purpose protections.
- The federal government should encourage diverse approaches to R&D across the states and add support where broader benefits can be realized nationwide.
- Finally, the federal government should create specific collaborative programs with allies and like-minded countries in key areas of R&D, removing barriers and supporting the development of next-generation collaboration.
Vannevar Bush drafted Science – The Endless Frontier in 1945, creating a foundation for the U.S. R&D system—and ultimately, the global R&D system—for the next 75 years. He did not try to solve every problem laid before him in 1945. Instead, he assessed the past and present situations, identified areas of significant change requiring new approaches and offering opportunities, placed the challenges of his time within that context of change and identified a small number of interventions likely to have the most cross-cutting effect on the overall system. His roadmap was ambitious in its scope but didn’t aspire to be global.
However, in today’s context, a global approach is exactly what’s needed. The United States again faces a moment of great change, but the current challenges and capabilities differ fundamentally from when the country was on the cusp of its postwar growth spurt. While still one of the largest world powers, this status is by no means assured. To extend the legacy of Vannevar Bush, we need to do far more than pay homage to it—we need to reinvent it.