A letter from America: The new-look US R&D policy

29 Jun 2021 | Viewpoint

Suddenly in Washington science is in, after four years of being out. In stark contrast to the new protectionism of Europe. A viewpoint

Rep. Don Beyer, Congressman.

WASHINGTON DC - From his office on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Rep. Don Beyer videos into an ongoing legislative debate to propose an amendment about satellites.

The commercial space sector in the US is booming, he says, and worldwide some 10,000 new satellites may be launched this year. That’s great commercially, but will all those orbiting gadgets get in the way of the astronomy on which space exploitation is based? “With the incredible promise of satellites in low-Earth orbit, we can’t ignore the consequences on ground-based astronomy,” he explains to the other Congressmen online. His proposal: Give the US National Science Foundation money and authority to study the impact.

“All in favour say ‘aye’”, says the committee chair, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. The ayes have it. No audible no’s. She gavels the amendment through. “I wish they were all that easy,” she says.

This is the US Congress with Democrats in the lead and a new president in the White House. The legislators are still operating in part remotely, and in part in-person as the pandemic eases in the US. But most of all, for those who care about science and technology, it’s an extraordinary time of action. Amendments to strengthen science can sail through. Massive plans for R&D spending clear legislative hurdles that only six months ago seemed insurmountable. Talks for international science cooperation – ruled out by the Trump Administration – are suddenly back on the agenda.

“This is the most exciting time for science funding in America in the last 30 years,” says Beyer, a Virginia Democrat who chairs the House space subcommittee. “There’s all these wonderful things we want to do,” he enthuses in an interview. “I mean, it’s an exciting time to be a scientist.”

Tale of two cities

For this observer, a veteran scitech journalist who has worked in Washington and Brussels, the contrast between cities is striking. In Brussels, EU leaders spent the past three years arguing over whether to increase their seven-year R&D budget from €77 billion to €80.9 billion, €94.5 billion or €95.5 billion (that was the winning number, though calculated differently from the others.) Over in Washington, on 28 June the House passed bipartisan legislation doubling the US National Science Foundation’s budget and adding billions for additional scitech measures. Just a few weeks earlier, the Senate came to bipartisan agreement on more than $250 billion in science and tech funding. (Caveat: In Congress’ multi-part budget process, these are just opening gambits in a game that will stretch into or past September. Still…)

Equally surprising: The sudden US eagerness to do science and technology deals with allies previously maligned or ignored in the Trump Administration. After rejoining the world climate accord in January, Biden aides have been laying out plans for coordinated global R&D efforts on climate. They are exploring with EU counterparts news ways to collaborate on the EU’s R&D programme, Horizon Europe. Oceans, green hydrogen, space and, of course, COVID-19: suddenly the US wants to be back on the global partnership scene. Meanwhile, in Brussels EU leaders wasted months arguing over whether to exclude Switzerland, Israel, the UK and other allies from their own space and quantum research. They still don’t have full agreement, aside from blackballing the Swiss for trade reasons unrelated to R&D.

What accounts for this extraordinary flipping of positions – from Trump’s no to Biden’s aye, from the EU’s “open to the world” R&D slogan of a few years ago to its current, protectionist “strategic autonomy” mantra?

In Europe, a bad hangover from 2016-2020 seems to be muddling minds. In part, normally globalist EU leaders were traumatised by Trump; his “America First” rhetoric emboldened European protectionists. Further, four painful years of arguing with the UK over the terms of Brexit have made EU leaders afraid of pulling a Trojan horse, stuffed with new technologies, across the Channel into its own markets. Also, a few chance occurrences: the appointment of French tech industrialist Thierry Breton as EU Industry Commissioner gave protectionists a powerful voice inside EU decision-making. And then there’s the money: The potential cost of reviving Europe’s COVID-19-crippled economy frightens EU leaders and has cast into the shade any hopes for big spending on R&D or other nice but not urgent topics.

America rising

In Washington, the opposite political dynamic is at work. First, on cooperation, the basic administrative machinery of US science wasn’t re-engineered by Trump. Many of the lower-level officials who actually do international R&D deals were forced to lay low for a while, but under Biden have been promoted. So when the new administration began reversing Trump foreign policies, it had on hand the experts who knew exactly what to do and how to get it done fast.

Second, on budget, despite grim forecasts of COVID-19-related budgetary disaster, many of the 50 US states are seeing near-magical budget surpluses. In Massachusetts, home to Harvard and MIT, there’s so much cash that the Republican governor wants to offer a two month sales tax holiday to voters. That kind of largesse is rippling through the US political world, visible in the multi-trillion dollar budget bills advanced by the Biden administration. Only a portion of this money will ever get spent; in politics, promises are cheap. But it’s very likely that a big slice of it will be approved – and that, as Rep. Beyer said, adds up to the biggest budgets for US science in decades.

And then there’s the China card. The one thing Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree on is their distrust of Beijing. The Senate’s massive science budget passed in large measure because Republicans and Democrats alike saw it as an essential response to keep US technology on top, in the face of rising Chinese competition. The Senate bill, Beyer says, “was pitched as a response to China. If it were just a matter of increasing research [spending], I don’t think it would get anywhere. But when you’re ‘standing up to China’ – that’s a brainwave.”

What should this tell European policy leaders? First, that they had better join the R&D race, fast. Second, that they should be open, not closed, to R&D collaboration with proven allies; the work will go faster that way. And finally, why is it that it’s science and technology from China, not Europe, that has Capitol Hill on edge. That’s the most unsettling message of all.

Richard L. Hudson is editor in chief of Science|Business.

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