The frontier is not endless for all

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Science  07 May 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6542, pp. 547
DOI: 10.1126/science.abj2583

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Recent weeks have seen numerous calls for more investment in research and development (R&D) in the United States. This is understandable with a new administration that is friendlier to science and with The Endless Frontier Act—a measure that could double the budget of the National Science Foundation in 5 years—under consideration in Congress. Proponents of the bill are heralding its potential to enhance America's competitiveness: A large part of the new money would go for “use-inspired” basic research aimed at economic growth. Although the new money for science would be long overdue, and there are provisions in the bill to try to extend its geographical benefit, care must be taken to ensure that funds are distributed more equitably than in the past. If science in the United States is truly to be an endless frontier, the benefits must extend equitably to all.

No one has had a better front row seat for efforts in the United States to boost competitiveness than Deborah Wince-Smith, the president and chief executive officer of the Council on Competitiveness, an eclectic group of leaders from business, academia, organized labor, and national laboratories. The council is one of a very small number of bodies that bring together a wide political spectrum on common interests. It has succeeded for 35 years because of the passion and deep knowledge that Wince-Smith brings to her leadership. I asked her how things had changed in the past 35 years. “When the council was formed, people thought what corporate America does is good for America,” she said, “But we've learned during this period with the demise of many of our manufacturing centers, that individual Americans in regions throughout our country have not been part of the prosperity game that's at the heart of who we are as a nation.”

We know that simply getting more research funding to these regions is not the whole answer. Of the top 30 universities in R&D spending, 11 are responsible for $11.3 billion in funding in the thriving coastal cities of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, and San Diego. But the other 19 members of this group, which account for $20 billion in spending, include cities and states in regions that have not benefited from the economic resurgence of the coastal hubs. There are plenty of great and well-funded scientists in these areas, but nowhere near an equal share of fast-growing and innovative companies.

In addition to poor geographic distribution, the number of women and people of color who are participating in the American innovation economy is dismal. In another editorial in this issue, Sangeeta Bhatia, Nancy Hopkins, and Susan Hockfield note that only 2.7% of venture capital goes to women-founded companies—and the statistics for people of color are even worse.

Over the years, American science policy has been shaped by two canonical reports: Science: The Endless Frontier (1945) and Rising Above the Gathering Storm (2005). Both were patriotic jeremiads proclaiming that American leadership in science and technology would lead to American strength in economic and foreign policy. Neither dealt explicitly with systemic sexism and racism in science or the poor geographic distribution of opportunity. Rising Above the Gathering Storm addressed failures in science education. But it did not address how the prevention of women and people of color from earning science degrees and advancing in their fields affected American competitiveness.

And that is what sets apart a recent report by the Council on Competitiveness, Competing in the Next Economy, which explicitly calls for widening the innovation economy in the United States to include more people and places. “We need to think of this in a new way and not be crippled by the old language of industrial policy that is really hurting us,” Wince-Smith said. “We can't say we are a great nation when we have so many parts of our country and so many citizens that are not participating in the opportunities.”

In other words, although China and Europe are formidable scientific competitors of the United States, achieving true competitiveness as a nation starts at home. As the United States plans for another welcome surge of research funding, it must work ever harder to expand the reach of this investment.

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