Achieving the Endless Frontier

It is time for America to reinvest in science and recommit to the partnership between the federal government, universities and private industry, writes Austin DeMarco.

March 30, 2021
 
 
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Modern American science was born from an ambitious leap. During World War II, researchers in the United States worked against enormous odds to develop radar, break German codes and establish the fundamentals of computing that would revolutionize the 20th century. After the war, our scientific leaders wrestled with how to integrate the scientific community back into civilian research.

An answer came in 1945, when Director of Wartime Research Vannevar Bush penned a report, "Science: The Endless Frontier," in which he envisioned an interconnected research ecosystem spanning the federal government, higher education institutions and private industry. The U.S. Congress implemented key aspects of the plan, and the results were spectacular: America became the technological leader of the world. From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, each presidential administration invested in science. In turn, science invested in the United States, and we built our economy and our prosperity on the foundation of modern technology.

I have been thrilled to work in the American scientific enterprise, and coming to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for my Ph.D. was a wild stroke of luck for me. My grandfather took a two-week course here while working for the Army after World War II, and he still talks about MIT today. In the 1970s, my uncle tried to attend the university on an U.S. Air Force scholarship, but his rural Texas education was not enough to open the doors.

When I made it to MIT five years after finding physics to be an unlikely salvation for a frustrated, dangerously misspent youth, my family experienced both a collective relief and a sense that a long hoped-for dream had finally been achieved. Studying here has been the greatest honor and most daunting challenge of my life.

Without question, the Ph.D. role is a difficult one. The hours are long, the pay is dismal and the job security nonexistent. But pushing the boundaries of human knowledge is worth it. Take any of the recent academic scientific discoveries -- from the Higgs boson all the way to new cancer-fighting drugs and the COVID-19 vaccines -- and you will find them all to be built on research undertaken by graduate students like me. Just as corporate executives lead while workers execute, our professors guide us, yet we are the ones who actually perform most of the experiments. All of us came prepared to work hard for scientific progress.

However, I could never have been prepared for the sense that American science is faltering. Federal spending on research is at its lowest relative level since 1960. While one of my colleagues recently got a faculty job after 99 job applications, the majority of my peers go on to become scientists in foreign nations, especially China, which ramped up its research investment to fill the vacuum left by the United States. The next scientific revolutions in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology and climate mitigation are increasingly taking place outside the United States. And whether our students leave for nontechnical fields or move to competitor nations that offer higher salaries and research funding, the American research establishment is being drained. Just over 75 years after Vannevar Bush’s grand vision, our investment in science and technology has stalled.

I have had a front-row seat to the erosion of American scientific leadership, but my concern goes far beyond shrinking research budgets and dwindling job markets. When American science slips, we risk the safety, security and prosperity of the entire nation. The discovery of new drugs that will save lives and cure diseases, quantum computing advances that will reshape international competition, and technological innovations that will unleash new industries will still happen -- just not here in America.

It is time for America to reinvest in science and recommit to the partnership between the federal government, universities and private industry -- one that’s built so much of our modern world. And, in fact, Congress is now considering several approaches to do just that, the most ambitious of which is the “Endless Frontier Act,” or EFA.

The EFA is a bipartisan, bicameral bill that would rekindle Vannevar Bush’s vision, jump-start American innovation and build a foundation for the challenges of the future. Through its funding, the EFA would train more than 2,000 new graduate students to become the technology leaders of tomorrow in key use-inspired basic research areas, such as biotechnology, climate mitigation, AI and quantum computing. It would build technology centers across the country, bringing new development into America’s heartland and urban centers. Moreover, the EFA would do all this while preserving and expanding the basic curiosity-inspired research that drives America today.

As a Ph.D. student, I am advocating not only for the future of my research but also for the idea that America must remain the scientific leader of the world. The EFA is precisely the approach required to reignite American science and ensure that the next generation of scientific discoveries happen here.

America has summoned the will to surmount greater challenges in the past: Was it not looking up at Sputnik that kindled our resolve to go to the moon? We must continue to invest in research and build a thriving technological ecosystem. We must expand fundamental research at universities and strengthen the bond between industry and academe. Most important, we must ensure that we build a capable scientific workforce, as the future of science and innovation begins with young researchers like me.

Technology that will reshape the future is coming. We must ask ourselves where we want to be when it arrives. Will America steer emerging technologies and how they shape our society, or are we content to let our competitors take the helm? Does the future still have a place for American leadership? We were the country that achieved the impossible, that tackled challenges precisely because they were difficult. Sustained, ambitious investment in innovation and research, beginning with the Endless Frontier Act, will rebuild America’s technological ecosystem, strengthen and diversify our scientific workforce, and regain our world leadership in science and technology.

Bio

Austin DeMarco is a Ph.D. student in the physics department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a federal affairs chair of the MIT Graduate Student Council.

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