America’s Scientific and Tech Leadership Hinges on Funding, Personnel

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A House hearing examined the needs of the U.S.’s scientific assets amidst tensions with China and the development of a National Science and Technology Strategy.

Maintaining and protecting a sizable and strong workforce in the science and technology sector is the primary defensive measure the U.S. can incorporate into a national research and development strategy as ongoing tensions with the People’s Republic of China manifest in the sciences, according to congressional testimony given Tuesday. 

A House hearing organized by the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology focused on how the U.S. can secure its leadership in science and technology innovation on a global stage. This discussion was framed as informative for the development of a National Science and Technology Strategy––something experts have called for since 2021

“While there are significant challenges ahead of us, I'm very optimistic about our ability to face them and ensure that America continues to have a thriving scientific enterprise,” Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said at the beginning of the hearing. 

Several witnesses said that a diverse workforce is a critical pillar in promoting the U.S.’s leadership in science and tech innovation, along with steady public funding and continued partnerships with private enterprises. 

“The skilled technical workforce is really the underpinning of a lot of the science and technology development that we do,” said Kelvin Droegemeier, a former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director and meteorology professor. He testified that future federal policy and a national strategy need to focus on incentivizing qualified people to pursue advanced scientific degrees and providing employment opportunities and resources at government-backed institutions. 

A representative from one such federally-funded laboratory also spoke to the need for continued government funding in scientific research and development. Director Kim Budil of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California said the lab’s recent breakthrough in generating net positive energy via fusion ignition was a major milestone, but related programs hinge on further funding.

“Of course investment lags,” Budil said. “We're beginning now to formulate plans for what an investment strategy would look like to solve these critical problems.” 

Topics on Budil’s docket include logistical components to fusion energy development, such as managing the fuel in fusion reactors’ tritium isotope supply––a critical ingredient in fueling nuclear fusion––and moving the energy generated onto an electrical grid. 

“If we really want to understand what's possible in the next few years, it's very important that we begin to invest in the energy applications and understand what the possibilities are there,” she said.

While maintaining steady federal funding was a hot topic during the hearing, experts and lawmakers also discussed the protection of American intellectual property. Droegemeier said that vetting partnering individuals and companies is central to protecting sensitive U.S. intellectual property and data. He noted that resources for comprehensive and thorough security checks should come from agencies like the National Science Foundation.

He said education on intellectual property policy is also crucial to protecting U.S. research assets. 

“I think we need to educate, we need to train, we need to create vigilance, but we also need to promote our values and folks that come here from other countries,” Droegemeier said. “We need to model those values and talk about the consequences for not adhering to those values.”

The Biden administration has previously pledged to increase funding for the U.S.’s science and technology research and development, lifting the spending percentage from 0.7% of the country’s gross domestic product to near 2%. Sources estimate that China spends roughly 2.4% of its GDP on research and development.