Who Will Win the 21st Century “Brains Race”?

Congress must invest in basic research for America to stay ahead.

Last November the Rosetta rocket, first sent to space in 2004, successfully landed on a moving comet for the first time in human history. That same month, Forbes reported that the world’s fastest supercomputer doubled the speed of its nearest competitor.

We’ve gotten used to the idea that these kinds of accomplishments are made in America. But in the 21st century, we can no longer just assume the next great technological and scientific accomplishments are going to come from our labs and garages. After all, the Rosetta rocket was launched by the European Space Agency – and that super computer? You can find it in China’s National University of Defense Technology.

Amidst this backdrop, a few weeks ago, the House of Representatives considered reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act. This law was originally passed in 2007 as a bipartisan bill seeking to double federal investments in research and development by 2020 and to enhance our country’s focus on science education and innovation.

Congressional leaders believed we could ensure that America’s scientists, researchers, and innovators are discovering the latest revolutionary breakthroughs on our shores, not someplace else. In fact, following the passage of the 2007 bill, Rep. Bart Gordon, then-Chairman of the House Science & Technology Committee, said, “We have to recognize that there are roughly seven billion people in the world, half of whom make less than $2 a day. We cannot and would not want to compete with that. We have to compete at a higher level with a better equipped and skilled workforce than that of our global counterparts.”

Unfortunately, the bill that came to the floor this year failed to bolster investments in basic research that would encourage our scientists to go bigger. It puts Congress – not scientists or leaders at the National Science Foundation – in charge of determining which kinds of projects should get funding. If that wasn’t bad enough, under this year’s bill, researchers looking to secure grants for their projects would also be confronted with more red tape.

We can do better. For starters, Congress should go back to the bipartisan spirit of the original COMPETES legislation. That’s the approach that the New Democrat Coalition – of which I’m a member – has tried to foster. Last year, our group laid out a set of principles that would ensure a strong foundation to invest in innovation and foster scientific growth. Our guidelines were modeled off the broad, bipartisan support that this legislation once had.

Boosting investments in research and development gives entrepreneurs and innovators from the Pacific Northwest to Silicon Valley to Columbus Ohio a chance to try out ideas with the potential to revolutionize the way we live.

When we think about the Internet, we usually talk about how it’s changed the way business is done: how a mom and pop shop in Tacoma can connect with customers across the United States and the world. Or how companies like Google started as a search engine and turned into an economic juggernaut.

But there is also Vint Cerf. As Scientific American has described, Cerf worked in the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, which electronically connected computers at the University of California, Los Angeles, the Stanford Research Institute, U.C. Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah. That was the first concrete step into developing the global network we know as the Internet.

And the only reason it happened was because of public support for federally-funded research.

Or that phone in your pocket. I like to think about what economist Mariana Mazzucato points out about our smartphones. The lithium batteries that power it, the multi-touch screen that enables you to navigate its capabilities, the Internet that runs on it to help you find a decent Thai restaurant, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) app that helps you find your way there to grab delicious take-out, all share the same origin.

The basic research behind these innovations began in government sponsored laboratories.

The 20th century’s arms race has turned into a 21st century brains race. It’s a world where our competitors are trying to recruit and develop the next generation of innovators.

If we don’t act, it will end up impacting our bottom line. The Brookings Institution has found that America now ranks 10th among Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations when it comes to research and development investments as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product.

Yet we can still seize the mantle of bipartisanship that pushed us forward before. Congress needs to do its job and pass a COMPETES Act that puts us ahead of the pack once again. The cutting-edge technology of tomorrow should not be developed someplace else. Rather, we should give our scientists and researchers – here in the United States – the tools they need to turn their dreams of tomorrow into reality.

Derek Kilmer

Derek Kilmer is the Member of Congress representing Washington State's Sixth Congressional District.